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Army Corps agrees to redo billion-dollar plan to fortify Miami-Dade against storm surge

Miami Herald archives
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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to revise a controversial plan to build towering walls and flood gates to fortify parts of Miami against worsening storm surge and will instead look at more natural solutions that could also help ailing Biscayne Bay.

In a letter provided by Miami-Dade County Tuesday, the Corps said it’s willing to spend another $8.2 million and take up to five years to get things right.

“It is critical that any plan balance project performance while also preserving and protecting the environment and does so in an equitable manner for the community,” Assistant Secretary of the Army Michael Connor wrote last month.

The decision comes after strong local opposition from residents and environmental groups, and lobbying by Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, to a plan expected to cost $4.6 billion. The original plan proposed a mile-long towering flood wall along the bay’s shores and flood gates across the Miami River, Little River and Biscayne Canal.

Last year, Miami-Dade asked the Corps to give it time to provide an alternative as part of a 60-40 cost share allowed under nationwide efforts to strengthen shores to storm surge, which are growing worse as the planet warms.

Even before he was named to the post, Levine Cava said she met with Connor to urge him to go a step further and restart planning.

“The fact is that we were very persistent and persuasive,” she said. “We also had public input that was very clear on the idea that the original plan for all the hard or gray infrastructure, would not be acceptable.”

“I've never seen the Corps pivot like this for any local government in my 20-plus year career dealing with them. It shows how important .. our region is and all the projects that they're investing in.” Irela Bague, Miami-Dade County's chief bay officer

The Corps initially launched the storm surge study for Biscayne Bay, known as the Back Bay study, three years ago with a planning cost of no more than $3 million.

The study is part of a national effort to make U.S. shores more resilient to rising seas and, in particular, the catastrophic damage that can be caused by hurricane storm surge. The project, which came after Hurricane Irma, is not meant to address chronic flooding from rising sea levels.

But the proposal for floodgates in waterfront neighborhoods and a meandering flood wall drew widespread opposition.

The Corps also suggested elevating flood-prone structures and buying out property owners. But because the federal agency is required to adhere to a Congressionally-mandated cost-benefit analysis, which means benefits must justify costs, advocacy groups worried the most vulnerable residents would see the fewest benefits.

Concerns about coordinating with existing projects

Local planning agencies also worried that the study, being handled by the Corps Norfolk District, failed to adequately incorporate billions of dollars in projects already underway.

“The other point we've made all along,” said county Resilience Chief Jim Murley, “was the necessity of coordinating the other studies that are going on.”

That includes a major Everglades Restoration project aimed at southern Biscayne Bay and marshes along the Everglades' remote fringe to fight off sea rise; beach renourishment; and overhauling the 75-year-old regional flood control system that drains all of South Florida.

“The emphasis that they made, that those studies had to be coordinated with this one, was a major gain for us,” Murley said.

Other restoration work for the bay included in the decades-old Everglades work, while farther south than much of the storm surge planning, could wind up having cross purposes if storm surge drainage winds up dumping more pollution in the bay. The infrastructure could also damage sea grass beds and mangroves that help filter water and provide habitat for fish and other marine life.

“They're equally important because they all relate to moving water or dealing with storms. And that's the essence of living in Miami,” Murley said.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

After the county asked to submit its own plan last year, officials expected to be able to tweak the Corps design. But the move to essentially start over came as a surprise, said Irela Bague, the county’s chief bay officer.

“I've never seen the Corps pivot like this for any local government in my 20-plus year career dealing with them,” said Bague, who served four years on the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board, which oversees Everglades restoration with the Corps. “It shows how important .. our region is and all the projects that they're investing in.”

While the Corps said the added planning could take up to five years, Levine Cava said she hopes a new study could be completed and included in Congress’s next biennial water and infrastructure act due in 2024.

“We're not starting from scratch, right? We're taking advantage of the parts where there was agreement,” she said.

The county also plans to hire its own design consultants to come up with a plan and will look to other Caribbean countries that are a part of a United Nations group to tackle similar problems.

“People need to understand what's at stake. People need to understand what are the risks. They need to understand what are the tradeoffs,” Levine Cava said. “And so a big component about this is not just input on how best to handle the water, but how to think about the future.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.