Sun Sentinel Broward Edition

Protecting water supply can help fight damage from sea-level rise

- By Ryan Rossi AP

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging as the new year begins, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Developed under incredible pressure with historic speed, scientists were able to produce a variety of vaccines in a matter of months.

As impressive as that achievemen­t is, there is another problem that requires the same level of commitment, urgency and scientific ingenuity to solve — its alarming effects are felt around the world each year. The problem, of course, is climate change, and for communitie­s here in South Florida, the concern is specifical­ly the effects of sea-level rise.

Most South Floridians are familiar with the effects that are most tangible — events like bigger king tides that often flood our roads and neighborho­ods and sometimes stop traffic and invade living spaces. But there are other impacts, such as saltwater intrusion, that should equally concern us and, much like the nature of the pandemic, cannot easily be seen.

South Florida sits above the Biscayne Aquifer. It’s a shallow layer of highly permeable limestone lying under most of our southeaste­rn coast that helps supply fresh water to more than 6 million residents.

As sea levels rise, denser salt water pushes more easily through the aquifer, contaminat­ing the fresh water beneath us. This is critically problemati­c, as wells installed on the surface are essentiall­y corrupted, no longer able to safely pull fresh water to the surface.

As a result, our municipali­ties are left with decisions that are both difficult and expensive. As eastern wells are lost to intrusion, western land is needed to develop new well fields, and water supply routes need to be redirected.

The job of our utilities grows more complicate­d.

This is a grim reality that is expected to grow worse, not in some far-off decade, but in the next. By the mid-2030s, many scientists have projected that our current well fields will not be able to adequately hold off this saltwater invasion. It is a problem that will wreak havoc on our economy, jeopardize public health, and cripple an already fragile environmen­t.

But there are solutions that can make these scenarios far less damaging. And though water conservati­on is undoubtedl­y a useful solution, broader, more-effective solutions are required.

One is protecting the current fresh water supply we already have. Fresh water from Lake Okeechobee plays a vital role in helping to minimize saltwater intrusion by recharging our undergroun­d aquifers, a process that is essential in keeping salt water at bay.

As a result, the environmen­t is protected, fresh water remains accessible and drinking water is kept safe. Protecting this fresh water has been an integral component to local water policy since Everglades restoratio­n projects began over 20 years ago.

It is safe to say that it will be just as critically important for the next 20 years — and more. My organizati­on, the South Florida Water Coalition, recently joined others in sending letters to the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District to bring attention to these developing dangers and insist that the water of our coastal residents and our local environmen­t remains legally protected.

The Biden administra­tion has vowed to make climate change — and in turn, climate solutions — a national priority, and that effort should be applauded. For South Floridians, this is certainly welcome news, but it will require building committed partnershi­ps, consistent leadership from our elected officials, and certainly a great deal of hard work over the next decade.

And just like the lessons of the pandemic, science can lead the way to survival. Our water depends on it.

Ryan A. Rossi is the director of the South Florida Water Coalition, and was a Florida House candidate in 2018.

”The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborat­ive of news organizati­ons across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.

 ?? ROBERT F BUKATY/ ?? The doors of a lock open at Port Mayocca, allowing a sailboat to enter the St. Lucie Canal after leaving Lake Okeechobee, background, on Oct. 25, 2019. High water levels at the lake not only mean more water supply, but could help fight saltwater intrusion, argues the director of the South Florida Water Coalition.
ROBERT F BUKATY/ The doors of a lock open at Port Mayocca, allowing a sailboat to enter the St. Lucie Canal after leaving Lake Okeechobee, background, on Oct. 25, 2019. High water levels at the lake not only mean more water supply, but could help fight saltwater intrusion, argues the director of the South Florida Water Coalition.
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