sea level rise

The reliability of the assets within the area of interest starts with the design process in the asset management plan. Decision-making dictates how the assets will be maintained and effective means to assure the maximum return on investments. Through condition assessment, the probability of failure can be estimated. Assets can also fail due to a growing area that may contribute to exceeding its maximum capacity. Operation and maintenance of the assets are important in reassuring a longer life span as well as getting the most out of the money to be spent. Prioritizing the assets by a defined system will allow for the community to see what areas are most susceptible to vulnerability/failure, which assets need the most attention due to their condition, and where the critical assets are located in relation to major public areas (hospitals, schools, etc.) with a high population.

So what happens when conditions change?  Let’s say sea levels are rising and your land is low.  What would the potential costs be to address this?  Better yet, what happens if it rains? We looked at one south Florida community and the flood stage for each based on 3 storm events: the 1:10 used by FDOT (Assumes 2.75 inches in 24 hours), the Florida Building Code event that includes a 5 in in one hour event (7 in in 24 hrs), and the 3 day 25 year event (9.5-11 inches).

Of no surprise is that the flooding increases as rainfall increases.  Subsequent runs assumed revisions based on sea level rise. The current condition, 1, 2 and 3 ft sea level rise scenarios were run at the 99 percentile groundwater and tidal dates and levels.  Tables 2-5 depict the flood stage results for each scenarios.  The final task was designed to involve the development of scenarios whereby a toolbox options are utilized to address flooding in the community.  Scenarios were to be developed to identify vulnerabilities and cost effectiveness as discussed previously.

The modeling results were then evaluated based of the accompanying infrastructure that is typically associated with same.  A summary of the timelines and expected risk reductions were noted in the tables associated with storm and SLR scenarios.  This task was to create the costs for the recommended improvements and a schedule for upgrading infrastructure will be developed in conjunction with staff.  Two issues arise.  First, the community needs to define which event they are planning to address and the timelines as the costs vary form an initial need of $30 million to over $300 million long-term.  Figure 1 shows how these costs rise with respect to time.  The long-term needs of $5 million per 100 acres matches with a prior effort in Palm Beach County.

SLR costs

Figure 1  Summary of Costs over the 3 ft of potential sea level Rise by 2011, under the 3 storm planning concepts.



Water and wastewater utilities spend a lot of time dealing with current issues =- putting out “fires.”  But there are larger trends that will affect the industry.  Here are a couple recent topics that we should consider in our industry:

Will robots be doing all our repetitive jobs?  If so what does that mean for all the people doing those jobs now.  Most do not require a lot of skills, and many of those in the jobs that will be lost, do not have the skills for other jobs?  Does the $15 per hour minimum wage accelerate this transition?  How does this affect the water industry?  Meter readers might be replaced with AMR systems.  Customer service is already migrating to direct banking.  There is a change coming.

What does the driverless car mean for us?  I am thinking about an old Arnold Schwartzenegger movie.  For utilities the issue may be how we interact with unmanned vehicles, especially when what we do can be disruptive to traffic.  What happens if those cars get into an accident?  And Warren Buffett is thinking about the impact of this on the insurance industry.  He owns a lot of GEICO stock.  It is doubtful many utility vehicles will be unmanned, in the near-term, but do our manned vehicles and the potential disruption leave us open to greater risk of loss?

Speaking of Warren Buffett says the economy is far better than certain candidates suggest.  I tend to trust Mr. Buffett.  He’s been doing this a long time and has been fabulously successful.  But he notes structural changes to the economy like those noted above, are ongoing.  That will create conflict for certain professions that migrate to automation, much as manufacturing did in the 1970s.  He raises concern about what happens to those workers and suggests that we have not planned enough for those workers who get displaced as the economy undergoes continuing transitions.  In the late 1970s we had CETA and other jobs training programs as we moved from manufacturing to other jobs.  He does not see that in place now.  The at-risk – the poor, minorities, the less educated, rural citizens…. in other words, the usual groups will be hit harder than the rest of the population.  I don’t hear that discussion on the campaign trail but utilities may want to follow these trends is the hope that we can acquire some of the skillsets that we need.  Or provide that training.

Florida’s flood protection plan received a C- from a study called States at Risk.  It said Florida lacks a long term plan for rising seas, despite being vulnerable.  On an unrelated note, the state is expecting insurance premiums to increase 25% or more for flood insurance for homeowners.  And local officials are working busily on FEMA maps to exclude as many properties as possible from flood insurance requirements.  Maybe those things are all related, just at opposite purposes, but who is going to get the calls when flooding occurs?  Storm water utilities, and sewer systems where the manholes are opened to “facilitate drainage.”  The question is what the ratings are for other states as Florida was not the least prepared nor is it the only state with exposure.

A final current trend to think about is this:  Current sea level rise projections have increase the high end, but remained steady for the 50 percentile case.  By 2200 we may see seas at 10 ft higher. That would be a major problem for south Florida.  But the world population will be over 15 billion, which exceeds the carrying capacity of agriculture (at present projections and techniques).  It also places over half the world in water limited areas.  So sea level rise is going to be huge in south Florida, but will concern be localized because of more pressing issues?   Is the number of people going to be our biggest issue in 2200?  Note both will be critical for a large portion of those 15 billion people, but the solution to either is…..?


My apologies for being offline for a month. It has been very busy.  I got back from Utah, and it was tests, reports, etc.  Then Thanksgiving – we went to Disney for my stepdaughter.  Then the Florida Section AWWA conference, then student final design presentations with President Kelly present for some of it, then finals, then a trip to the west coast, then posting grades, then it’s now.  Crazy.  And my kitchen is being worked on -see the photos of what is left of it.   Not much, and Christmas is how far away.  Yikes.  At least the wrapping and chopping are 99% done!

In the meantime a lot has happened.  Congress cut SRF funding, but passed the transportation bill.  They passed WITAF, but provided minimal funding.  The debates roll on.  A recent South Park episode is all about illegal immigrants from Canada escaping, then there is a wall built, by the Canadian so t hose who left don’t come back, and then we find out who the new president in Canada looks like… well you just have to watch and be scared.  Very scared.  If you do not follow South Park, well you are just missing it.

Russia had a plane brought down by an apparent ISIS bomb.  The Egyptians deny it.  Too much arguing about was it or wasn’t it to garner much of an outcry.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims.  Then France had their 911 event sponsored by ISIS, and most of the world is sending their best wishes to the victims, the victims families and the French population.  In such events, most of the world comes together.  Everybody was French for a day.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims. Then the couple in California.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims. But it raises a very disconcerting question, and one fraught with far too many xenophobic concerns as ISIS and their allies like the Taliban, Boko Hiram and others continue to reign terror and violence on the rest of the world.  The xenophobic response will be – whom do we trust in the Muslim world?  If you don’t believe in blowback, listen to the debates.  One commentator points out the xenophobia may actually help ISIS (Donald are you listening?).  LOL – of course not.  But utilities should expect another round of security costs and analyses in the future.

The Florida Section conference was great.  The venue was great (Renaissance at Sea World).  The program garnered a lot of buzz and comments.  Who knew at a water conference that potable reuse would be the big topic?  I also won two awards at the Florida Section conference – a best paper award and the Alan B. Roberts award for Outstanding Service by a member.  Wow!!  I am humbled.  A lot of great utility folks were present at the FSAWW conference.  It is a great event for the water industry (that includes wastewater, storm water etc.).  The technical program is designed to be good, timely and useful to those that attend.  While all utilities struggle with costs, please make time to send your folks if possible.  The training cost is reasonable for what you get and who you meet.

My students did well on tests and presentations.  President Kelly was impressed with their presentations and projects at the Dean’s Design Showcase.  We have never had the Dean at student presentations, let alone the President of the University.  My sincere appreciation to him, his staff and those that made it happen.  The students were pleased and impressed.  And they are getting jobs easily.  You can tell people are building and working on infrastructure as most of the graduates get jobs right away, if they don’t have them already.

Grading and the west coast went well.  The Fort Myers News Press-Sunday Headline was “Where has all the water gone” – a discussion on how groundwater is depleting across the country including south Florida which gets 60 inches of rain.  But the article points out what that climate, rainfall, recharge and other factors have been altered in south Florida as a result of development.  We really do make an impact and it is affecting utilities today. This follows another article last week on depleted groundwater around the world.  I have lots of photos in my travels from the air – groundwater use is highest where surface waters are limited – i.e. dry areas.  Except in dry areas, the groundwater does not recharge.  I had a student do a project for his master’s degree that estimated that groundwater depletion is a measureable percentage of sea level rise.  More to come on that.

Next the kitchen.  I will post photos in another blog.

As I said, a busy month.

As those of you who follow this blog know, we periodically touch on climate issues.  Sea level rise is a particularly acute issue here at ground zero – southeast Florida.  But as I have said for some time, this is not an immediate crisis, but a slow steady creep that gives us time to adapt to the changes related to sea level rise.  I am optimistic that while we will spend a lot more money to engineer water management so we will need more engineers, there are solutions that will allow us to thrive here for a long time – probably a lot longer than we have been here, which is just over 100 years.

Our bigger, current challenge is the temporal but catastrophic impact of tropical storm activity that can create immediate consequences that last for years, much as Hurricane Andrew did in 1992 and Hurricane Wilma almost ten years ago.  Of course there have been others, like Donna in 1960 which were worse.  I mention this because the peak of hurricane season in Sept 10 – only two weeks away.  We have been lucky for years now, and of course we are all hoping it remains that way.

But I found another interesting article this weekend hat talked about the states with the most weather losses since 2006 (and in a subsequent blog I will look back further for comparison). is New Jersey.  OK, no huge surprise given the recent experience of Sandy.  But who is number 2?  Or for that matter 2-10?  Would you believe that Florida is not on the list at all.  Neither is California despite the fires.  Or North Carolina another hurricane prone state.

No, according to the Tribune, the states  (in order:after  New Jersey) are: Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Colorado and Arizona.  The most common causes: thunderstorms, heavy rain, flash flood and tornados.  And the impacts range from $24 billion in New Jersey to $3.5 billion in Arizona.  An interesting factoid as we approach the peak of hurricane season.  May Florida stay off the list.

In the last blog we discussed 10 planning steps for sea level rises.  When planning 50-100 years other factors can come into play as well.  As a result, to allow flexibility in the analysis due to the range of increases within the different time periods, an approach that uses incremental increases of 1, 2, and 3 feet of SLR is suggested.  Hence infrastructure is built to meet milestones, not arbitrary dates lessening the potential for stranded assets.. The increments can work as threshold values in planning considerations in terms of allowing planners the ability to know ahead of time where the next set of vulnerable areas will be to allow a for proactive response approach that can be matched to the observed future sea levels.

But prior to developing infrastructure plans, the local community needs to define an acceptable level of service (LOS) for the community. A level service would indicate how often it is acceptable for flooding to occur in a community on an annual basis.  1% is 4 days per years and for a place like Miami Beach, this is nearly 2 ft NAVD88, well above the mean high tide.  The failure to establish an acceptable LOS is often the cause of failure or loss of confidence in a plan at a later point in time.  The effects of SLR of the level of service should be used to update the mapping to demonstrate how the level of service changes, so that a long-term LOS can be defined and used for near-term planning.

With the LOS known, the vulnerability assessment is developed using a GIS based map of topography and the groundwater levels associated with wet and dry season water levels.  LiDAR is a useful tool that may be available at very high resolution in coastal areas.  Topographic maps must be “ground-truthed” by tying it to local benchmarks and transportation plans.  USGS groundwater and NOAA tidal data from local monitoring stations to correlate with the groundwater information. Based on the results of these efforts, the GIS-based mapping will provide areas of likely flooding.

GIS map should be updated with layers of information for water mains, sewer mains, canals, catch basins, weirs and stormwater facilities.  Updating with critical infrastructure will provide a view of vulnerability of critical infrastructure that will be funded by the public sector. Ultimately policy makers will need more information to prioritize the needed improvements.  For example, a major goal may be to reduce Economic Vulnerability.  This means identifying where economic activity occurs and potential jobs.  At-risk populations, valuable property (tax base) and emergency response may be drivers, which means data from other sources should be added.

The next step is to analyze vulnerability spatially, by overlaying development priorities with expected climate change on GIS maps to identify hotspots where adaptation activities should be focused. This effort includes identification of the critical data gaps which, when filled, will enable more precise identification of at risk infrastructure and predictions of impacts on physical infrastructure and on communities. The final deliverable will include descriptions of the recommended concepts including schematics, cost estimates, and implementation plan.

So why go through all this.  Let’s go back to the beginning.  It has to do with community confidence in its leaders.  Resident look at whether their property will be protected.  Businesses look at long-term viability when making decisions about relocating enterprises.  The insurance industry, which has traditionally been focused on a one year vision of risk, is beginning to discuss long-term risks and not insuring property rebuild is risk-prone areas.  That will affect how bankers look at lending practices, which likely will decrease property values.  Hence it is in the community’s interests to develop a planning framework to adapt to sea level rise and protect vulnerable infrastructure through a long-term plan.  Plan or….

There has been significant discussion about the potential impacts of climate change on the world:  more intense rainfall events, more severe thunderstorms and tropical cyclones, droughts, loss of glacial ice and storage, increased demand for crop irrigation.  However for much of the State of Florida, and for much of the coastal United States east of the Rio Grande River, the climate issue that is most likely to create significant risk to health and economic activity is sea-level rise.  Data gathered by NOAA from multiple sites indicates that sea level rise is occurring, and has been for over 100 years. About 8 inches since 1930.

The impact of climate change on Florida is two-fold – Florida often is water-supply limited as topography limits the ability to store excess precipitation for water use during the dry periods and sea level rise will exacerbate local flooding.  The highly engineered stormwater drainage system of canals and control structures has effectively enabled management of water tables and saltwater intrusion by gravity. The advent of sea-level rise will present new challenges, because the water table is currently maintained at the highest possible levels to counter saltwater intrusion, while limiting flood risk in southeast Florida’s low-lying terrain and providing for water supplies.  As sea level rises, the water will not flow by gravity, which disrupts that balance struck between flood risk and water supply availability in the canal system.

Occasional flooding is not new to Florida, but the increasing frequency we currently experience is related to sea level rise, not just along the coast, but for large expanses of developed property inland due to topography and groundwater levels.  As a result, the challenge for water managers in the state, especially in southeast Florida, is to control the groundwater table, because control of the water table is essential to prevent flooding of the low terrain.

The issue is not lost on local governments in south Florida nor on the educational institutions in the area.  Florida Universities are studying the impacts to the region to identify ways in which we can mitigate, respond to and adapt to these changes. My university, Florida Atlantic University, is located in this vulnerable part of the State has been proactive in partnership with the Four County Compact in addressing these issues and we have now joined with other Universities in the State to form the Florida Climate Institute, a consortium working with state and federal agencies to address the multiple challenges and opportunities facing this State. FAU in particular, has been proactive in developing tools to evaluate risk and identify adaptation strategies to protect local and regional infrastructure and property. 

Our efforts have included using high resolution NOAA data to map topography at the +/- 6 inch level, combined that topography with mapping of infrastructure and groundwater, to identify vulnerable areas throughout Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, as well as initiated projects in Palm Beach County and other coastal regions throughout the state.  By identifying vulnerability based on sea level changes, the timing and tools for adaptation can be designed and funded to insure a “no-regrets” strategy that neither accelerates nor delays infrastructure beyond its need. 

While we have all heard the discussion of an estimated two to three feet if sea level rise is anticipated by 2100; sea level rise is a slow, albeit permanent change to our environment.  The slow part allows us to make informed decisions about adaptation strategies that may prove useful in the long term as well as the short term.  Of prime importance is the need to plan for these needs 50 or more years out so that we do not increase our exposure to risk.  Keeping development out of low lying areas, redeveloping pumping and piping systems with change in mind and reserving areas where major efforts will need to be undertaken, is important to the public interest and will affect private business, tourism and homeowners.  Sea level rise is already a problem for many low lying areas such as Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and other coastal communities. It will be an incremental problem creeping up on us for the rest of the century and beyond.

The lowest lying areas are the roadways, which are also the location of electrical, water, sewer, phone and drainage infrastructure.  Fortunately given the current Federally funded special imagery and NOAA data systems we are able to predict pretty accurately where flooding will occur.  Linking that information with detailed projections of sea level rise impacts we can  map vulnerable areas and build adaptive measures into every action and plan we undertake.  But the impacts are not only on the coast. Sea level affects ground water table levels and with our intense rainfall areas far inland can be flooded, even subject to long term inundation.  Water levels are rising and will continue to rise as groundwater rises concurrently with sea level. Add the impact summer rains and dealing with water becomes a major priority. Figures 1 and 2 outline the roadway network degradation at present, 1, 2, and 3 ft of sea level rise.  The figures demonstrate that a major, underestimated amount of property is vulnerable on the western edge of the developed areas because the elevations are decreasing as one moves west from I95. 


While time will impact our environment, there are three options to address the change:


  • Protect infrastructure from the impacts of climate change
  • Adapt to the changes, and
  • In the worst case retreat from the change.

 Retreat does not need to be considered in the short or medium term.  South Florida has developed in the last 100 years and there will be well over 100 years of life left.  As a result, the best option is adaptation.  Adaptation takes different forms depending on location.  I have developed a toolbox of options that can be applied to address these adaptation demands, resulting in an approach that will need a more managed integrated water system, more operations and inevitably more dollars.  For example we can install more coastal salinity structures, raise road beds, abandon some local roads, increase storm water pumping, add storm water retention etc. to address many of the problems.  The technology is available today.

Much of the actual needs are local, but the problem is regional and requires a concerted effort of federal, state and local agencies and the private sector to address the scales of the problem.  A community can address the local problems, but the regional canals, barriers, etc., are beyond the scope of individual agencies.  Collaboration and discussion are needed. 

The needs will be large – in the tens of billions.  But there are two things in south Florida’s favor – time and money.  The expenditures are over many, many years.  Most important in the near term need is the early planning and identification of critical components of infrastructure and policy needs and timing for same.  That is what FAU does best.  At risk are nearly 6 million of Floridians their economy and lifestyle, $3.7 trillion in property (2012) in south east Florida alone and a $260 billion annual economy.  All of these are expected to continue to increase assuming the appropriate plans are made to adapt to the changing sea level.  Protection of the area for the next 100-150 years is achievable as long as we have the science, the understanding and the will to do it.  Plan now, and over the rest of this century starting now we can raise those billions of dollars needed.


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