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Obama aide promises support for Fla., other states threatened by sea-level rise

At a conference that touched on everything from the possible submergence of the Florida Keys to contaminated drinking water wells, President Obama's principal environmental adviser told south Florida officials yesterday that the "next step" in the administration's efforts on climate change involves supporting state and local governments.

White House Council On Environmental Quality chief Nancy Sutley did not say whether additional money or incentives to help south Florida and other coastal regions prepare for rising sea levels would be part of President Obama's upcoming plan on climate change, expected in coming weeks. "You never get ahead of the boss," she said.

But she emphasized that Obama's earlier speeches mentioned not just curbing emissions but helping the nation prepare for climate change.

"We've been thinking about what else we need to do as a federal government to help ensure to meet that goal," said Sutley at the Rising Seas Summit in Fort Lauderdale, organized by the Association of Climate Change Officers.

The Department of Agriculture's announcement of seven regional hubs on climate change this month is an example of the administration's local focus, according to Sutley.

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At the conference, southeast Florida officials said they are making progress in preparing for rising sea levels, even as scientific research paints a catastrophic future of flooding for many communities. In the Florida Keys, for example, modeling suggests that 86 percent of Monroe County could be completely inundated at high tide with 3 feet of sea-level rise.

In the city of Fort Lauderdale, 70 percent of residents in a recent community survey said they have noticed changes in the level of flooding that is affecting their way of life, said Susanne Torriente, assistant city manager of the city.

Many scientists agree that global sea levels will rise by roughly 3 feet by 2100. Even if countries were to stop all their greenhouse gas emissions now, sea-level rise will continue to accelerate, said Virginia Burkett, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

"For the next 100 years, the bell is rung," she said.

Ocean accelerates threat to drinking water

The search for money to make infrastructure more resilient -- either through new sources or the retooling of existing funds -- is an ongoing challenge.

In Hallandale Beach, for example, officials are grappling with whether to go with the cheaper, untested option versus the more expensive one. They are considering the injection of freshwater underground on a regular basis into new stormwater drains that usually would only be used a few times a year during heavy rain events.

The idea is to create a freshwater "buffer" underground against saltwater creeping farther and farther inland from the ocean, threatening the city's last remaining drinking water well. Saltwater has been creeping this way underground for decades for a variety of reasons, including historical drainage of the Everglades, but preliminary scientific analysis indicates that sea-level rise because of climate change is speeding up the process (ClimateWire, Jan. 10, 2012).

The city also has the option of moving its drinking water well to the west entirely, but this could be twice as expensive as the "buffer" idea, said Keith London, a former elected Hallandale Beach official. The buffer idea has never been tried at such a large scale, even as it may be cheaper, he said. The source of the freshwater for injection also is complicated, because it might have to come from wastewater or industrial water, said London.

"We have to make a decision by fall," he said.

'We can't do this alone'

A common plea from officials here was for additional funding and resources from the federal government, considering the scope of the sea-level rise challenge. "We can't do this alone," said Rhonda Haag, sustainability coordinator of Monroe County, which governs the 75,000-person population of the Florida Keys.

Some of the Florida Keys' chief needs -- raising highways that stretch across the islands and moving endangered species to higher land -- are far beyond the reach of the county budget, she said. The county is expected to adopt its first-ever climate action plan this year, she said.

The federal government can continue to play a key role via funding and support of scientific research in the region, panelists said. Via a partnership with federal scientists, Broward County concluded that the saltwater intrusion line -- creeping underground from the ocean -- has moved about a mile inland over the past 50 years in one part of the county, said Jennifer Jurado, director of Broward's Natural Resources Planning and Management Division. Sea-level rise has accelerated the movement of the line by a factor of two, according to the analysis.

Similarly, southwest Florida recently completed a full analysis of the various types of its salt marshes with financial help from U.S. EPA. The report documents how saltwater intrusion is pushing marshes farther inland, said Jim Beever, principal planner of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

Yet, there also is an emphasis on making more with existing money -- from federal, state and local governments -- in a time of tight budgets. Several counties in south Florida are incorporating sea-level rise officially into their land-use, storm water and comprehensive plans for the first time, a move that allows them to rethink rebuilding. The idea is when there is replacement of aging infrastructure, such as a water pump, it be redesigned with sea-level rise in mind.

"You may not necessarily need new dollars. You need to better use the dollars that you have," said Kristin Jacobs, mayor of Broward County.

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