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Written by Kim Ogren, BT Contributor   
July 2020

Locals need to weigh in on Back Bay study

MPix_GoingGreen_7-20ore effort must be made for the public to understand and support the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Miami-Dade Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study. Residents of Miami-Dade County can’t afford to be led by the Corps when it comes to planning for our collective future. We would be better off if the local climate planning experts and planning frameworks contained in the Southeast Florida Climate Compact, Resilient 305, and efforts exemplified by the Miami-Dade County’s Biscayne Bay Task Force, led the way.

The draft study, released June 5, recommends a variety of new resiliency infrastructure along and in Biscayne Bay. Ideas for seawalls, gates, pumps, and living shorelines come in response to a question from Congress to the nation’s engineers: What’s the best way to protect development from storm surge?

It’s a broad question, and local planners and environmental experts know that the devil is in the details.

Carolien Kraan, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, has concerns with both the question and the approach in answering it.

“Underpinnings of big projects like these are that they must achieve a positive cost-benefit analysis. The question becomes, then, how costs and benefits are defined. This practice sways toward increases in inequity, because, for example, the question did not ask: ‘Who needs the help more?’”

We know there’s much more at stake than the Army Corps could consider within its $3 million budget, and that this is a draft report.

Despite the fact that Congress paid 100 percent of the costs of the study and that for any projects developed as a result, it would pay 65 percent, citizens are on firm ground to be skeptical that this study, without clearer local leadership and dialogue, could put us on a path of no return.

Laudable is the study’s incorporation of future assumptions about sea level rise. Appreciative we all are of the congressional investment. However, confidence in the Army Corps is low.

The Corps is not known for its agility and finesse, both of which are needed to protect the public’s interest against future storm events. An article in the journal Nature Communications encourages the use of planning scenarios. “Flexible infrastructure planning has the potential to manage uncertainty at reduced cost by building less infrastructure up front, but enabling expansion in the future if needed. However, enabling flexibility often requires substantial proactive planning or upfront investment.” To be adaptive, decision makers must able to switch one action for another to optimize results. The World Bank also recommends infrastructure be planned with bottom-up decision making based on having options.

The Corp’s own Institute of Water Resources includes a number of recommendations to improve its methodology for dealing with uncertainties, including the use of scenario planning and the study of uncertainties directly. Planning for uncertainty costs more on the front end because you have to study uncertainties in order to reduce them.

Kraan agrees. “For complex problems like flooding in Miami,” she says, “you need to develop different solutions for different parts of the problem.” Going back to the earlier version of the study, she notes, “For example, buyouts, applied strategically, could be very useful.” The Corps argues that they can’t predict property value impacts. But the point is, we don’t expect predictions. We do expect consideration of additional social and environmental issues based on planning assumptions and local expertise.

Miami Waterkeeper’s Rachel Silverstein adds, “Why waste the opportunity to look at all the options when we have so much at stake? I wonder, how can a project be fully designed if there aren’t any design parameters?” Kraan agrees that it is too early to say anything about the effectiveness of the seawalls, especially since it remains totally unclear exactly how tall they will be or why they will end where they will.

For many, it’s not too soon to ask about the intended relationship between the structures and Biscayne Bay, saltwater intrusion, and natural shorelines. Silverstein reminds us too that “there are multiple savings when using natural infrastructure that fall outside the Corps’ jurisdiction.”

The questions triggered by the draft study remind me of research by Malcolm Gladwell, who found that doctors are more likely to get sued not for actual harm, but for perceived harm from rushed or shoddy care. I’m concerned that we don’t understand how the Back Bay study fits into our local priorities. It needs more bottom-up contextualizing to move forward. We should demand better translation, more local integration, and a bottom-up planning process that puts all the options on the table.

The Army Corps invites comments to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it until July 20. Only formal written comments will be taken into consideration by the Corps. Local officials are a phone call away.

 

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