When you come in for a landing at Palm Beach International, you pass over a network of blue waterways, canals, inlets, and bays that link pastel buildings and homes to the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal. In fact, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway that touches my life and yours if you live and work here, is a much larger network that runs North-South, from Norfolk, Virginia to the Florida Keys, some 1,090 miles of navigable interstate. This Blue Highway is what makes our part of the state so attractive to boat-loving vacationers and retirees alike. It is also what puts South Florida’s future as a tourist mecca, retiree haven, and agricultural giant (second to California) at great risk from sea level rise (SLR). The experts in local government and higher education know this:
The risks from sea level rise are imminent and serious. This is not a distant problem, but one that is affecting us now and will certainly affect our children. Sea level rise will impact millions of Americans and threaten billions of dollars of building and infrastructure. — Sea Level Rise Summit 2013
And so do the insurers and activist organizations, and all have our work cut out for us, given the denial in Tallahassee and among billionaire developers. The latter are (for now), as one Facebook comment had it, so 20th Century.
Attorney Mitchell Chester isn’t waiting for anyone’s blessing to bring the message of SLR to whomever will hear it and act upon it. The fastest way to get up to speed on sea level rise is to visit his site SLRSouthFlorida for the latest news on the subject. It’s not good news for us coastal dwellers, but it may also represent an opportunity to save the Florida that people have loved almost to death, and to prosper in an entirely different way (and I don’t mean Waterworld).
I first heard Mitchell Chester speak at a breakout session at the Second Annual Sea Level Rise Symposium in July, sponsored by The Arthur R. Marshall Foundation for the Everglades, the Oxbridge Academy and the League of Women Voters of Palm Beach County. The session addressed the need for our legal and financial systems to “engage the shared emergency of sea level rise.” Meaning, of course, that they are not doing so in any significant way. Currently, for example, you will not find any warning about the threat of a rising sea to your property in your real estate disclosure documents. Mortgage documents also reflect the same myopia.
Last week, I heard Mr. Chester making an electrifying presentation to the Climate Action Coalition meeting about his idea to save the billion dollar South Florida agriculture, “some of the best growing fields in the U.S.” He was here, he said, “to bring reality to the recommendations” of adaptation and mitigation contained in the South Florida Regional Climate Action Plan. Without action, our ability to grow 250 food crops (and feed the country) could end “as soon as the second term of the incoming American president.” Whoa! That’s within 10 years.
In a nutshell: “For [Florida’s] agriculture, it’s either up or out.” As he pointed out, the strategy of containing the sea by building up the land is nothing new. The Dutch have been doing it for centuries, and are still the masters of their dike-and-windmill system in modern times. The Maya and Aztec also created farm lands on human-made mounds and managed excess water with canals, according to Raising Fields, the website created by Mitchell Chester to educate and make a case for adaptation of this kind.
While the ocean will advance and someday cover Southeast Florida, the use of mound farming and elevated agricultural strategies will serve to extend the life of valuable rural properties and precious growing fields.
For us South Florida residents, it could be an idea whose time has come. And, as if to anticipate the drum beat about jobs gained or lost that plays through every political discussion, this proposal has an answer. To build a new agriculture for a wetter, water-logged South Florida — and continue to feed all those urbanites who rely on farmers they’ll never meet — it will be everybody in, everybody working together: engineers, economists, architects, agronomists, water experts, farmers, environmentalists, mapping experts, permitting agencies, planners at many levels. And that’s before the first shovelful of soil.
Links to help you dig in 🙂