South county leaders board yacht to talk climate change, rising tides

In a meeting with panache, leaders from Palm Beach County’s southernmost cities boarded a yacht Wednesday to talk about a pressing problem they all share:

Climate change.

Delray Beach leaders hosted a “king tide” awareness event, an opportunity for residents to mingle with city experts about the season’s highest tides which flooded coastal areas earlier this month, aboard The Lady Atlantic Yacht at Veterans Park.

The event drew leaders from Boynton Beach, Boca Raton, Ocean Ridge, Highland Beach, Palm Beach County and Fort Lauderdale for a tour of the Intracoastal Waterway and an education on how each city is bracing for the inevitable rising tides.

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“It doesn’t matter where you are,” said Dr. Nancy Gassman, Fort Lauderdale’s sustainability expert. “Climate change will find a way to affect you.”

During king tides, an annual flooding event exacerbated by the full moon in early October, Fort Lauderdale braced for 7 inches of flooding. They instead saw 21 inches, Gassman said.

“By 2045, we expect to see this ‘nuisance flooding’ 240 times a year, assuming we don’t change anything about the topography of our area,” Gassman said.

During this year’s tidal flooding early this month, Delray Beach’s coastal areas saw inches of water cascade over barriers and overflow from storm drains into the streets.

“The tide has gotten so high,” said Jeff Needle, who recently joined Delray Beach as a stormwater engineer, “they are forward-pumping water (from inland canals) in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.”

Wednesday’s meeting on the yacht allowed city leaders to see varying types of sea walls in different areas so they could offer ideas to local governments and private landowners, said Ana Puszkin-Chevlin, who heads the Delray Beach’s sustainability office.

“To really understand … you have to see it for yourself,” Puszkin-Chevlin told the more than 100 residents and city leaders aboard the yacht.

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As they sailed southern Palm Beach County, local leaders explored the idea of raising sea walls and adding pumps to coastal areas in their respective cities.

Dr. Diana Mitsova, an urban and regional planning professor at Florida Atlantic University who has studied rising tides for more than a decade, pointed to “living shorelines,” or sea walls comprised of mangroves, sand and other organic material, as an option.

Not only are living shorelines more attractive than concrete sea walls, she said, but they have been found to filter pollution and benefit the coastal ecosystem.

Palm Beach County’s coastal barriers are at least 80 percent concrete, said Eric Anderson, of the county’s environmental resource department.

Some of those sea walls have been completely submerged in rising waters over the years.

Along Marine Way in Delray Beach, one of the city’s most flood-prone neighborhoods along the Intracoastal, no sea wall is visible from the street. That’s because it was built decades ago, and now is completely under water, Needle said.

“It’s time to adapt, time to change,” he said. “These tides are rising.”

Local cities are trending toward implementing sustainable or green practices in future development. Delray Beach has had a sustainability officer since 2012.

Boynton Beach hired a sustainability officer just two months ago to prioritize green practices in future development.

“The point is to just create an awareness of what we’re facing,” Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant said, who joined city leaders aboard the yacht.

Boca Raton very recently added a sustainability officer position, which hasn’t yet been filled.

Monica Mayotte is the former chair of Boca’s Green Living Advisory Board, which pushed for the sustainability officer role. She live-streamed inches of flooding in the city’s barrier island during recent king tides.

“People don’t believe it’s happening in Boca Raton,” Mayotte said. “But it is … And all of these cities are finally starting to work together, to learn from each other.”

Climate change has been a polarizing issue on the national level, particularly after President Donald Trump’s controversial withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord this summer. That action prompted leaders from Delray Beach and West Palm Beach to join more than 300 mayors nationwide in signing a vow to uphold the agreement.

Despite the controversy surrounding climate change research, local leaders still should explore preventative measures in anticipation of rising tides, said Laura Geselbracht, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy, which explores conservation and coastal resilience issues in Florida.

Said Geselbracht: “There’s a lot of solutions beyond partisan politics.”

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