Staying Afloat: Planning and Managing Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Risk in Florida’s Coastal Counties

By Robert Hines (University of Georgia), Andrew J. Grandage (Western Carolina University), and Katherine G. Willoughby (University of Georgia)

For many coastal communities, there is no escaping the realities of sea level rise (SLR) because they already experience visible disruptions from it, ranging from nuisance flooding to enhanced storm surge. However, bigger problems lie down the road. Critical Infrastructure that provides water supply, wastewater treatment, control of stormwater runoff, and transportation are recognized as vulnerable to SLR and intensification of existing flooding hazards (Allen et al. 2019). Moreover, without adaptive measures in place, SLR could lead to population shifts of a similar magnitude to the Great Migration, as residents gradually move from inundated areas to those not exposed (Hauer, Evans, & Mishra 2016).

Although federal and state governments can play key roles in shaping major climate change policy, SLR creates localized risks that can only be addressed in profoundly local political environments. As a result, coastal cities and counties face increasing pressure from the general public, media, and credit markets to develop strategic plans that address risks associated with SLR. For example, local governments in South Florida have been pressed into action to combat the disruptive effects of SLR. In 2017, voters approved the “Miami Forever” bonds, raising $192 Million for investments in adaptive infrastructure. Leading up to the 2018 elections, the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, and Palm Beach Post joined hands in unprecedented action to “inform, engage, provoke and build momentum to address the slow-motion tidal wave coming our way” (Sun Sentinel Editorial Board 2018, paragraph 22). Therefore, Florida’s coastal counties provide an opportunity to study adaptation strategies at “ground zero”, potentially informing other coastal areas where SLR is beginning to surface onto the policy agenda.

Our study of Floridian coastal counties provides three key contributions. First, we provide an adaptive risk management framework for incorporating new climate vulnerability assessments into established planning and budgeting processes. A general criticism of climate research is its tendency to stop short of providing policymakers with feasible strategies for adaption. Therefore, our research focuses on developing strategies for analyzing risk and breaking complex problems down into politically tractable solutions. Second, our research is important in helping move scholarship beyond conceptual frameworks and towards empirical analysis of tactics implemented across multiple service areas. In our study, we develop a categorization scheme that classifies policies by focus area, risk type, and risk reduction tactic. Finally, researchers interested in the intersection of climate science and planning can use our framework as a blueprint for intertwining the adaptive governance and capital planning literatures in conducting interdisciplinary applied research.

This study focuses on two primary research questions. First, given their tremendous exposure to SLR, how are Floridian county governments managing such risks? To answer this research question, we used our policy categorization scheme, classifying data unearthed from comprehensive plans, financial reports, and meeting minutes from each county. We also conducted a thematic media review to increase the validity of our findings and provide explanatory context. Results indicate that to effectively plan for SLR, local governments must evaluate risks across a vast number of municipal service areas. Specifically, this study points to the need to manage risks for transportation, water supply, stormwater, and sewer infrastructure. Importantly, to pinpoint these risks with precision, local governments must perform climate vulnerability assessments, involving advanced Geographic Information Systems (GIS), SLR projections, and simulations of extreme weather events.

Given these results, our second research question concerns the progress that counties have made in incorporating these risks into their planning and budgeting processes. For this research question, we use our framework to determine the stage of risk management that each county has reached. Specifically, our adaptive risk management framework consists of eight stages, beginning with recognition of risks and progressing to vulnerability assessments, problem specification, option development, prioritization, and concluding with implementation of adaptive measures. In sum, our results show uneven progress among the coastal counties. Specifically, of the 35 coastal counties, 60% have recognized the need to respond to SLR based risks and 40% have defined policy for conducting vulnerability assessments to better understand their exposure. However, only a handful of counties have progressed through each stage of the framework.

Of the 35 coastal counties, Broward, Monroe, Miami-Dade, and Indian River emerged as clear leaders based on the number of policies in place, progression through the framework, and media review (See Figure 1). Miami-Dade provides an illustration of how risk assessments can inform capital planning for water management systems. Specifically, Miami-Dade has learned that rising seas have contributed to higher groundwater elevation making it difficult for septic systems to function properly unless they are elevated, with a study conducted by the County finding that the cost of improvements to remedy the issue could total $2 Billion.

Figure 1. Coastal County Policy Count Map

In Monroe County, also known as the Florida Keys, risk assessments have demonstrated the need for costly road elevation. For example, roughly half of their 300 miles of road network is anticipated to experience regular flooding within the next 20 to 30 years. Monroe County is seeking assistance from the state for these expensive projects that also require new infrastructure to collect, pump, and treat stormwater. To get started with various adaptive projects, the County has asked the state for $150 Million. However, according to the head of Disaster Management for the County, “If we asked for what we actually needed, we’d be in the billions of dollars” (Harris 2019, paragraph 4).

We recognize that decisions to fund projects aimed at managing climate risks, in this case SLR, are inherently political in nature and highly localized. However, in the case of SLR in coastal counties, we maintain that a coordinated, comprehensive, and structured process is needed to arrive at politically feasible sets of solutions. Specifically, by conducting robust climate vulnerability assessments, local government can use data-driven techniques to prioritize capital improvement projects and other preventative measures. Certainly, local governments in the early stages of SLR adaptation will benefit from studying strategies implemented in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Indian River.

Works Cited

Allen, Thomas R., Thomas Crawford, Burrell Montz, Jessica Whitehead, Susan Lovelace, Armon D. Hanks, Ariel R. Christensen, and Gregory D. Kearney. 2019. “Linking water infrastructure, public health, and sea level rise: Integrated assessment of flood resilience in coastal cities.” Public Works Management & Policy 24 (1): 110-139. doi:10.1177/1087724×18798380.

Harris, Alex. 2019. “Florida Keys faces huge bill to survive sea rise. Will state help?” Tampa Bay Times, November 26. (Accessed October 23, 2020).

Hauer, Mathew E., Jason M. Evans, and Deepak R. Mishra. 2016. “Millions projected to be at risk from sea-level rise in the continental United States.” Nature Climate Change 6 (7): 691-695. doi:10.1038/nclimate2961.

Sun Sentinel Editorial Board. 2018. “Sea-level rise: the defining issue of the century.” South Florida Sun Sentinel. May 4. (accessed December 28, 2019).

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Shawn Henley on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Robert E. Hines is a PhD student at the University of Georgia studying public administration and policy. He is interested in in public budgeting and finance at the local level. His research focuses on local governments’ management of climate change based risks and how governmental fragmentation affects metropolitan areas.

Andrew Grandage is an assistant professor in the Political Science and Public Affairs Department at Western Carolina University. His research focuses on public management with an emphasis on budgeting and financial management, project management, and performance management.

Katherine Willoughby is Golembiewski Professor of Public Administration at the University of Georgia.  She has conducted research, taught university courses, and consulted with government officials and others about public budgeting and financial management for the last thirty years.  Her research focuses on state and local government budgeting, and particularly performance budgeting, as well as public management, and specifically, state and local government disaster management.  Recent projects include an IBM Center for The Business of Government report about local government enterprise strategies to manage natural disasters and published research about local government response and recovery efforts in the time of COVID-19.