State Road A1A is the main street for barrier island residents and routinely floods. This location in Ocean Ridge, with three sloped driveways and no swales, flooded June 15 after less than an inch of rain. Jerry Lower/ The Coastal Star
By Mary Hladky
An in-depth assessment of how vulnerable southeastern Palm Beach County cities and towns are to climate change has found that the risks are increasing, with anticipated tidal flooding alone threatening more than $10 billion in property values by 2070.
A study by a team of consultants, commissioned by seven cities, towns and Palm Beach County, identified the top climate change threats to the area and pinpointed significant facilities in each city and town that are especially at risk.
In what may surprise people who live inland, the study predicts that rainfall-induced flooding caused by changing rainfall patterns will be the biggest threat to the southeastern part of the county. This type of flooding has a big impact on inland areas, where many residents don’t expect it, and can overwhelm stormwater drainage systems.
“It is really eye-opening that the flooding isn’t just coastal,” said Lindsey Nieratka, Boca Raton’s sustainability manager. “We need to be considering our stormwater systems and green space inland.” More green space would help absorb the rainfall.
Tidal flooding, long the bane of coastal residents, will become a bigger problem, the report says.
Sea levels are forecast to rise 33 inches by 2070, according to mid-range projections by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, causing a “near exponential increase” in the number of days of high tide flooding each year, the report states.
The third top threat is rising daytime and nighttime temperatures, which hit low-income and elderly people the hardest, the report says.
While previous assessments in South Florida have focused on sea level rise, the new study is more comprehensive, identifying 12 main threats.
It classifies sea level rise not as a threat in itself, but as a problem that exacerbates six of those threats — shoreline recession, tidal flooding, rainfall-induced flooding, storm surge, groundwater inundation and saltwater intrusion.
Other threats are algae blooms, pest and disease outbreaks, droughts, wildfires, extreme heat and high winds. Hurricane strengths will intensify and cause greater destruction, the study predicts.
Flooding and rising seas are the “gravest threat” to the area’s economy, with flood-prone properties becoming less valuable, which in turn would reduce property tax revenue to municipalities, the report says.
Governments often finance improvements with bonds, and bond rating agencies are watching what local governments do, giving better ratings to those that invest in adaptation.
The study is intended to provide detailed, up-to-date information on the threats and to assess vulnerabilities in each city and town. That will help them identify what they can do to adapt to the changing climate and to mitigate damage and loss.
“Adaptation and mitigation will be a long process that will require sustained effort and concentration and hard work from us and everyone in this community,” Megan Houston, director of the county’s Office of Resilience, told county commissioners when the report was presented to them June 22.
Boca Raton, Highland Beach, Delray Beach, Ocean Ridge, Boynton Beach, Lantana, Lake Worth Beach and Palm Beach County joined forces in 2019 to hire a consultant team to conduct the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. The team included Brizaga Inc., which develops adaptation solutions. The team worked in conjunction with sustainability managers and other city and town officials.
Briny Breezes, Manalapan and South Palm Beach did not participate.
The governments budgeted $366,797 to conduct the assessment, augmented by two grants totaling nearly $150,000 from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The report comes amid extreme weather in the United States. In the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, a drought and a series of heat waves bringing triple-digit temperatures have fueled intense wildfires and claimed hundreds of lives in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada. The record-breaking heat even caused mussels, clams and other sea creatures to cook to death.
The cost of protecting cities and towns from the effects of climate change will be much more than each can do on its own.
The report urges government leaders to seek out state and federal grants to help pay for mitigation and to boost resiliency. As awareness of climate change increases, more money is becoming available.
Legislation signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May and appropriations in the state budget made available $640 million to deal with the impacts of sea level rise, intensified storms and flooding.
Federal funding also is increasing. A $3.5 trillion budget proposal, whose fate was uncertain in July, includes one of the biggest efforts that Congress has considered to address climate change.
Municipal officials described the 236-page assessment as very helpful.
“It is so useful to have that,” said Rebecca Harvey, Boynton Beach’s sustainability coordinator. “It elevates the awareness of the threats and what we can expect going into the future.”
The amount of information is so voluminous, “we are still absorbing this,” Harvey said. The next step, she said, is to present study results to city staff in all departments so that they can integrate the information into their planning.
The report also recommended adaptation and mitigation strategies that they can use to take action, she said.
Boca Raton is taking similar steps. Nieratka said the city will incorporate the information into projects already underway and use it to identify and prioritize new projects. “I want to make it part of our process as we evaluate projects,” she said.
Ocean Ridge Town Manager Tracey Stevens said there is value in collaborating with other municipalities on the report.
“It is not something one town on its own can accomplish,” she said. “We can do better if we work together.”
Boynton Beach City Manager Lori LaVerriere said the report helps the city know where it is vulnerable.
Adaptation and mitigation “can’t be a back-burner thing,” she said. “Mother Nature will be forcing us to deal with it, like it or not.”
View the full report at https://discover.pbcgov.org/resilience/Pages/CoastalResiliencePartnership.aspx