Talking Headways Podcast: Resiliency in South Florida

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This week, we’re chatting with Jim Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County, Fla. Murley talks about climate change, sea level rise, and how South Florida is responding with policy and planning.

For those of you who preferred to read rather than listen, and edited transcript is provided below the podcast player. A full transcript is here

Jeff Wood: How do you plan for resilience in transportation systems and in housing, as you were mentioning before, what are the types of interventions that can be had in those arenas?

Jim Murley: Well, housing is, you know, always, there’s so many variables. Affordability is so important in an area like ours because we have a huge workforce issue of finding housing for people middle and low moderate income. That’s a huge stress that we are engaged with all the time. So where we build new housing and, you know, we’re a county that fully participates in all the financial programs that have evolved nationally. We’ve created some of our own surcharge, financial sources of income that we partner with the private sector to build affordable housing and income regulated products.

That’s moving forward. You always have that going on, where we locate those has been more and more a focus of the story of where the new transportation investments were planned and our plans, which are along our corridors and stations. But at the same time, the massive amount of people who occupy homes in our community are in what are called a new word I learned just this year, naturally occurring, affordable housing another N-o-a-h, but not the same NOAH.

And it’s basically a housing that, you know, has traditionally been rental for service workers in areas of our community privately owned a variety of quality, but you can’t not place that into your equation. So we have to think of how to make sure as we move forward to protect housing from the vulnerabilities of storms, we’re thinking of all those, that particular supply, and also thinking about how to build the new housing better. And in the right locations, we have a legacy just like every community does of things that at the time seemed to make perfect sense, but we certainly can look back and see that they had unseen ramifications.

JW: What are some of those things that seem to make sense? And then had the had issues later on?

JM: Well, South Florida is always been a very low area that has a lot of rain. We get 60 inches of rain a year. And, you know, if the Everglades used to come much closer to the coastal Ridge, which is traditionally where we built, if you know where Miami is on the main one and took a range of courses and relative to term for us, that means 10 to 15 feet above sea level versus, you know, five feet above sea level. But it makes a big difference in where the water level is, especially for fresh water.

And so that fresh water from the West used to be much closer to the urbanized area, but we went through a development phase or the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, where we went west with suburban type development that required highways and dredging and filling, dredging canals to drain the land and using the fill from the dredge activity to raise the land at the same time to make it habitable, usually first for agriculture and then moving in over time, it became more residential. So that’s the history.

We’re not doing that anymore. We have a strong urban growth boundary. Finally that for the last 10 years has held pretty well. That keeps development from going further West, but we have what we have, right? You don’t abandon people just because the people that were here before you made a certain set of decisions. So we have to manage that legacy at the same time point ourself forward, because we’re still growing. You know, we still grow absolute terms. We’re about 2.8 million people, and we have grown, but mostly because of foreign immigration.

And that has been, you know, again, that’s slowed down tremendously because of the virus. So a lot of uncertainties that will affect us that way

JW: You’re impacted so much by this kind of simple chemical compound, H2O, water. It’s quite amazing how much it, you know, it’s sustaining of life, but it also seems to be damaging of the ways that we want to live. What’s the biggest impact of water, do you think, on humans in South Florida?

JM: Wow. I mean, it’s everything that makes up South Florida really. I mean, our geology is a porous lime rock. So the water is traveling through the lime rock depending on the volume of water, the direction is flowing naturally. And the pressure that comes from water building up during the summer. So naturally it would flow out of the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, south and move east and west on the peninsula. And as the water volumes grew up, it would actually move through the Ridge.

And we have history stories from the late 1900s where sailors would be in Biscayne Bay and see fresh water welling up from artesian wells in the middle of the Bay and esrine area. There were so much fresh water in the system that it needed a release, and you can’t find that anymore, but that’s because a century ago, the people in charge started to manage the water. And that meant a system of drainage, canals, pumps, raising land levies don’t work very well here because of the land being so porous, but managing the water for sure.

We do it 24-7 every day, year after year. And that means the future is about managing water because that’s what the past has been. It’s not about ending and starting a new chapter in our development. We never stopped managing the water. We have droughts and that affects the system. Overall, we have very sophisticated water management. We have one of the largest county-run water and sewer systems. So it’s not a situation where you’re dealing with like 10 or 20 separate systems, delivering water and dealing with treating the water.

We have a big county system, and that means we can leverage that size and investments and make decisions, but we’re managing water, you know the water where we’re pulling the water up to drink and we’re using it and then dispose of it. It’s the same water. And then we have the fresh water, which is important to our natural systems, the Everglades and our estuary, the estuary is by definition a mixture of fresh and salt water. So we have to have the fresh water to get the Biscayne Bay to make it a wonderful place. And then we have water coming in from storm events, which is as you know, as we talked about both heavy rains and then the damaging property, and often life of storm surge coming to shore.

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