All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Dispatchability…uh, what?

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The emninetly dispatchable power of Dinorwig, a former quarry in Wales turned hydraulic storage

Today (8/8/17) SFU’s Mark Jaccard chimed in on the Site C debate with an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun about dispatchability. Huh?

What appears to irritate Jaccard, a highly influential scholar and environmentalist, is the often repeated claim that while the costs of Site C keep climbing, those of renewables keep dropping.  By the time the Site C dam is completed, wind and solar will be so cheap that BC will be saddled with a white elephant.  Not so fast, says Jaccard: the real comparison should made on the cost of dispatchable electricity, not simply the price per kilowatt of capacity, nor that of produced electricity in kilowatt-hours.  Rather, what matters is the cost of producing electricity at the time when it is needed.  For instance, wind electricity that is only produced at nighttime, when no-one needs it, would indeed have indeed very low value; conversely, wind that reliably produces electricity at peak times (typically late afternoon), would be worth much more.  Dispatchable electricity, that is, electricity that can be matched to the demand, is indeed much more valuable.

Jaccard should be applauded for introducing this fairly arcane concept into the discussion.  As the Utilities Commission, which is finally reviewing Site C, drafts its recommendations, the concept of dispatchability is likely to get more airplay – and generate further confusion.  Forewarned…

That said, I expect this editorial to be embraced by the defenders of Site C.  Jaccard, wisely, does not pronounce himself on the issue.

That may be because, ultimately, dispatchability is unlikely to be a key issue.  Jaccard mentions that a large reservoir, such as would be created by Site C, does  provide dispatchability because of its ability to store water and release it only as needed.  A large hydro-electric reservoir is an ideal match for an intermittent source such as wind or solar.  Indeed, according to Jaccard,

As we invest in more wind and solar, the economics of dispatchable sources like Site C improves.

This is counter-intuitive, but true – in general.  But this is very unlikely to be true of Site C, itself.  This is because Site C would create just another reservoir, one among many in the province.  Site A, where the WAC Bennett was built, is a case in point: it created Williston Lake, a reservoir that dwarfs the proposed reservoir that Site C would create in the Peace valley.  And there are many more, of course: just think of Kootenay Lake or the Arrow Lakes to get an idea of the storage capacity we already have.  We are already well equipped to partner with any increase in intermittent power such as wind or solar.

Jaccard also mentions that other energy storage options, such as batteries, are much more costly than its equivalent capacity in a large hydroelectric reservoir.  But this is the same refrain as was said last decade about wind and solar: too expensive.  As larger and larger storage systems come on line (such as  the newly announced projects in Hawaii and Australia), unit costs per unit power are going to drop, just as they did for solar, because of the economies of scale in manufacturing, as well as new technical developments.  True, we’re not there yet, but there is no reason to expect that batteries would not follow a price curve similar to solar cells or computers.  In contrast, if Muskrat Falls is any indication, the price of Site C is going to keep soaring skywards.  I have not asked him, but my guess is that Jaccard’s prudence and lack of commitment on this issue comes from the fact that he knows these facts, just like Andrew Weaver does.  And like Weaver, I expect Jaccard to eventually admit, sooner or later, that Site C is unnecessary.

But if nothing else, Jaccard has the merit of introducing the concept of dispatchability to the general public, at least to those who read the papers.  If it becomes a household word, I fully expect the geothermal energy folks to start trumpeting: “Hey, we’re dispatchable! Invest with us!”

And a good thing that would be.


Written by enviropaul

August 4, 2017 at 3:40 pm

Water and the Canadian identity

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From Renzetti`s Globe and mail article

Last Canada Day, Elizabeth Renzetti, the Globe & Mail columnist, chose to highlight water: the attachment that we, Canadians, have for it.  Water is everywhere in Canadians’ lives, from canoeing to showering; we take water for granted (and waste a lot of it); and, more than others, we are blind to our water issues.  A piece well worth reading (link here).

From the paintings of the Group of Seven to our tourist brochures, water is everywhere in our collective imagination and it binds us.  Renzetti describes

the mundane magic of a Canadian landscape: a gorgeous, fast-flowing body of water, surrounded by trees and flowers and birds. A group of men sat on rocks in the middle, speaking a language I didn’t recognize. A young couple had hauled their infant in its stroller down the trail and dipped the smiling baby into the water, a Canadian baptism. My children stopped complaining. We all sat with our feet in the creek, strangers united by this water.

This is one way to think of Canada: We are strangers united by water. Oceans surround us on three sides, at least a quarter of a million rivers flow in all directions.

Renzetti has an insight on water that few of us have: a brother, Steven, who was an expert on water.  He unfortunately died this February, a big loss for his family, of course, but also for the university where he worked (Brock) and for the community of water thinkers across the country.  A sample of his thinking can be found in this 2010 Tyee article here.

And it is true that we have plenty of issues: while we use and waste more water than pretty much any other nation, we also pay too little attention to its safety (witness the Walkerton tragedy) and its quality.  Our waters are polluted.  This is especially true away from the big cities, especially in the North.  Though the North occupies a special place in our identity, Canadians are mostly ignorant of its everyday realities.  Quoting Renzetti  again:

We love water, we are drawn to it, but for years we have taken it for granted. Perhaps we’re not quite the guardians we hoped we’d be. We may be on the verge of paying the price.

A recent report from the World Wildlife Fund found that a number of the country’s watersheds were threatened by pollution and habitat loss – and the problem could be worse than we know, since data-gathering is so poor. Across the country, Indigenous communities endure water that is not safe to drink, with some water advisories lasting for years.

We don’t know enough about water in this country. We consume too much. We’re the second-highest per-capita consumers of water in the world! We don’t charge enough for it. We don’t think enough about it, because it’s everywhere. One day the well might run dry, when we are looking the other way.

“Looking the other way”, “data gathering is so poor”.  Indeed.  What was already a poor situation in the 90s was made worse under the government of Stephen Harper, with cutbacks affecting data gathering on water quality, a situation that has not been rectified yet by the current government.  Regulation is no better; just the week, the government announced it was giving the okay to gold miner Seabridge to dump tailings in fish bearings streams of the Nass River watershed.

First Nations, of course, also have a special relationship with water (see Honoring Water here, or Indigenous Perspectives here).  But a special relationship to water is true of all Canadians, and that expresses itself in our fine art production, which abundantly features water, but also in our folklore.

Think, for instance, of two of the best known (and best loved) folk songs of this land, the Log Driver’s Waltz and the Blackfly Song, both by Wade Hemsworth.  Blackflies lay their eggs on running waters, so it makes sense that they would torment a surveyor working on a project to dam a river, the Little Abitibi.  As for the log driver, if you don’t get the importance of water, you weren’t paying attention.  Enjoy!



Written by enviropaul

July 21, 2017 at 5:34 pm

The Montréal flood of 1987

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Thirty years ago, there was a huge cloudburst that paralyzed the city.  Ici Radio-Canada has put some video footage on-line, and it’s quite interesting.  It’s in French, of course, but the images are quite eloquent.  Here is a link to the article that features the video; the translation is from me.

The Décarie Expressway, thirty years ago.

The city had been under a heat wave, and when a cold front came a huge storm was created: over 100 millimetres of rain fell in an hour. A storekeeper witnessed the storm:

The wind started blowing, and all of a sudden you couldn’t see anything, it was like white smoke.  But it was rain! Trees were all bent.  Water started coming here through the roof, through the windows, even through the toilet.  We have three feet of water in the basement!

Weatherman Pascal Yiakouvakis explained that there was wind, rain and hail.  For hail to form, the storm cloud has to be very tall, at least ten kilometers – one can imagine how much water that represents!  More water fell in one hour (100 mm) than normally falls in an average July in Montréal (90 mm)  That is also much more than the stormdrains can handle: their design capacity is for 40 mm/hr.

Traffic was paralyzed, even emergency vehicles could not move.  Drivers had to be rescued, using ladders, from the below-ground level highways like the Décarie Expressway.  Hydro Québec reported a loss of power to about 350,000 households, without knowing exactly where: the storm had damaged the main computerized data control system.  The Montréal Métro had to shut down, the tunnels were completely flooded.

In the wake of the flooding of Gatineau, Rigaud, and areas around Montréal this past spring, one wonders what, if anything, has been learned.  The two instances of flooding cannot be compared, of course; the 1987 flood was a local cloudburst (Longueuil, on the south shore, got barely 10 mm during the storm) of short duration, while this year’s flooding was due to relentless rain over a large area for over a month.

But still, would it not be a good idea to berm the subway entrances so that flooding is minimized? The same scenario happened in New York City after the storm Sandy, and this is something considered. Does it make sense to put a highly in a large ditch?  Not really – actually, any highway is a long scar through a neighbourhood, and it traps users whenever something goes wrong.  Surface streets with regular intersections are far more resilient.

Does the engineering approach of stormdrains work?  Yes, it does, but it has its limitations.  Whether a system can drain floods according to its design specs depends on maintenance, among other things; today (July 15th) CBC reported about a flood in a Montréal underpass because sand and gravel had accumulated in the combined sewer pipe.

But even should the system work as designed, the design criteria are no match for a storm from hell.  Green roofs can shave off a few millimeters from a storm, preventing the worst; cities as diverse as Chicago and Paris have now mandated them on new construction. Ditto for infiltration basins and rain gardens; we are starting to see these here and there (for instance, nearby Township of Langley has some interesting plans).  And our combined sewers could do with expanded storage: much larger pipes can be used in strategic locations, creating underground reservoirs that let sewage flow freely but can store storm waters when necessary (and also prevent release of combined sewage and strom waters, or CSOs; that`s their key design function).

But to find really aggressive approaches, one has to look overseas – and nowhere better than the Netherlands.  Rotterdam, for instance, has created a good number of, well, holes under the ground surface, where cloudburst water can accumulate before flooding streets and houses.  For instance, the underground parking lot of the biggest art museum in town (Boijmans van Beuningen) is designed to flood automatically under cloudburst conditions.  In another instance, a local school has a sunken outdoor basketball court; as much as two meters of rain can gather there.

Vancouver has at least one large tunnel, abandonned and condemned, that could serve as a temporary receptacle for deluge-like storm waters.  I expect this is also true in Montréal as in many Canadian cities that have been flooded in the last decade.  But I rarely hear anything like that mentioned.  How about you, Calgary?  Toronto?  …anyone?


Written by enviropaul

July 15, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Snopes and Breitbart on climate

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A year or so ago, I wrote a series of short pieces that give examples of logical fallacies in environmental issues.

Snopes just published a piece that fits very nicely as a complement to that series.   The topic is the very common trope that global warming is a fraud or a hoax; the originator is James Delingpole writing for Breitbart News.  It is unusual for Snopes to wade into technical debates; but the claim by Breibart is so egregious, and so widespread in the popular media, that, I assume, Snopes felt it warranted a response beyond the more technical (and at times difficult for a lay public) sites such as RealClimate.

Some headlines from Breibart News.

What is interesting is that the study has the trappings of scientific respectability; it is presented as peer-reviewed.  Here are a few quotes from the Delingpole article:

The peer-reviewed study by two scientists and a veteran statistician looked at the global average temperature datasets (GAST) which are used by climate alarmists to argue that recent years have been “the hottest evah” and that the warming of the last 120 years has been dramatic and unprecedented.

What they found is that these readings are “totally inconsistent with published and credible U.S. and other temperature data.” That is, the adjusted data used by alarmist organizations like NASA, NOAA, and the UK Met Office differs so markedly from the original raw data that it cannot be trusted.

This is a pretty strong claim, likely to appeal to Breitbart readers who distrust anything published by government.  But strong claims need strong evidence.  The Snopes post, as is their practice, does not have attribution but whoever did the soul-deadening fact-checking work deserves a medal.  I will suggest that anyone interested read the full article, here.  The “peer-review study” is authored by James Wallace, Joseph D’Aleo, and Craig Idso, and the link to it can also be found in the Snopes article.

The report claims that temperature data has been falsified, and that these claims have been peer-reviewed.  Snopes debunks both claims.

The report looks like it is peer-reviewed.  It is not; it is merely getting endorsements from a few people with “PhD” after their names.  Further, it is published as blog post, which is different from appearing  in a peer-reviewed academic journal.  In a proper journal the reviewers are unknown to the writer, and the standards are high.  This is a sort of appeal to authority fallacy…except that the authorities endorsing the claim are nothing of the sort, and the endorsement process itself misleading.

The claims themselves are plain wrong, using the common tricks of citing data out of context, and (in this case) blatantly lying as to what the data actually means.  Quoting Snopes:

This statement implores us to falsely interpret the figure as showing changes to the raw data itself. As previously mentioned, however, this chart (and many similar ones in the “study”) shows changes between two versions of corrected data. To make the point Delingpole thinks D’Aleo is making, you would need to show that corrected records of climate relative to raw data make recent temperatures warmer than the raw data, and older records cooler.

Snopes writers are being polite.  It can boiled down to this: the National Climatic Data Center, the agency that publishes the data discussed in the “study”, reported recently that a new algorythm enables the production of better quality data, and present the new, corrected data.   The corrections in questions are fine-tuned details accounting for things such as satellite altitude loss, etc. The corrections do not in any way affect the main results of numerous measurements, which confirm what everyone knows: it’s warmer, globally.  Delingpole claims the opposite, that it has become colder.  This is just plain factually wrong and is a lie, no more no less.

This is where an analysis of logical errors has to quit; lying is no mistake, no logical error.

As misinformation and “fake news” seem to be the theme of the decade, I’m glad for sites like Snopes.


Note: please don’t confuse the blog RealClimate, written by bona fide climatologists, with the intentionally misleadingly named blog RealClimateScience.  The latter is maintained by climate change  denier Tony Heller writing under a pseudonym.  This info comes thanks to the folks at DeSmogBlog, a site that all environmental fact checkers should know.

Written by enviropaul

July 14, 2017 at 4:23 pm

Trevor Goward, lichens, and what’s wrong about how we do science

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Trevor Goward

Trevor Goward is a BC scientist who has set the world of of lichen science on its head: his insights led to the discovery (by Toby Spribille) 0f the presence of a third species, a yeast, in the alga-fungus symbiotic organism.  Like all scientific discoveries, this one is pretty cool, but it’s how it came about and what that says about science, ecology, and our ability to understand our planet that is the fascinating story.  Goward is largely self-taught, like the better-known maverick mycologist Paul Stamets.

I learned the story from the June 2017 issue of Scientific American.  It is paywalled; go to your library or buy the magazine, as it is a story well worth reading in its entirety.  Meanwhile, here are a few nuggets below.

Author Erica Gies, a Victoria, BC based science writer, introduces Goward:

Goward…seems more mountain man than scientist, a naturalist in the tradition of Charles Darwin or Henry David Thoreau. Goward’s scientific love is lichens—those growths that look like little mosses or colored crusts stuck to trees and rocks everywhere. He is inseparable from this place, where he has spent most of his adult life after growing up in a city south of the park. Now 64, he rarely leaves. “It has become my center of spiritual gravity,” he tells me. It’s not hard to see why. Most of the park has no road access and is rarely seen by humans. Wells Gray’s 1.3 million acres were formed by volcanoes and glaciers; its river valleys, sheer rock mountains, alpine meadows and waterfall spray zones foster rich biodiversity. His careful attention to this one place, like conservationist Aldo Leopold’s beloved Sauk County, Wisconsin, allows him to see connections that others might miss.

And yet Trevor Goward is a maverick in the scientific world. His radical thought experiments about lichens, published in 12 provocative essays, available on his Website, Ways of Enlichenment, have been both ridiculed and lauded—but largely ignored by most researchers because he holds no scientific degrees and because many of his ideas are not supported by rigorous data. Still, Goward’s astute observations and deep thinking follow in the footsteps of Darwin’s and Thoreau’s approaches—which, much more than laboratory science, formed the basis of the theories of evolution and ecology.

He says he can learn from [his dog] Purple’s way of seeing. That may seem eccentric, but Goward respects First Nations peoples’ ways of knowing, and learning from animals is a storied human tradition.

Science’s reductionist focus has made it nearly impossible to fully understand symbiosis, [University of Alberta lichenologist Toby] Spribille says. “Ecology was supposed to be the science of natural process and synthesis, but its backbone is severely strained under the mathematics of individuality.”

In July 2016 Spribille and his co-authors took a major step forward in that understanding. Their big reveal in Science: many lichens have a second fungus in the house.

Gowan and Spribille found that two species of Bryoria lichens, one eaten as traditional food but the other toxic, are actually the same species: same fungus and alga combination. But both were found to contain a third symbiotic partner, a yeast; the one lichen that contains much more of the yeast than the other is the toxic one.  The Bryoria discovery led to the identification of a yeast partner in 52 other genera of lichens.

Elders use clues such as location, color and the types of neighboring lichens to tell them apart. When Stuart Crawford, a friend of Goward’s with a degree in ethnobotany, showed bundles of the two lichens to an elder and conservationist from the Neskonlith band, the late Mary Thomas, she correctly identified the edible one every time.

Local people’s wisdom does not always jibe with scientific explanations, Crawford says, but the result, based on observation, is correct. The locals told Crawford that they wait for B. fremontii to “ripen” on the tree. In fact, lichens do not ripen as do fruits and vegetables, but the darker color and its growth pattern on trees help the people distinguish it from its poisonous twin.

Aside from pointing out the value of traditional environmental knowledge, Gies also discusses what is wrong with our current way of managing science.  She mentions biologists who never set foot outdoors and could not name any of the species around them, as a way to illustrate the problems of funded reductionist science which considers basic description and taxonomy quaint.  She also describes what some call the ivory-fortress mentality, that is, the hostility to new ideas.  In particular:

…worrisome to Spribille is that his own students are petrified of being wrong, a psychological state incompatible with breakthroughs. For a counterexample, he points to Goward. In the case of Bryoria, Goward surmised that a third partner was present, although he incorrectly thought it was a bacterium. But being correct “is not the criterion of a brilliant mind,” Spribille says. Rather, brilliant minds are characterized by indefatigable curiosity and questioning, traits Spribille tries to encourage in his students.

Goward has turned this ethic into a way of life. His house has running water for a shower and sinks but no toilet. Goward says they appreciate being forced to go outside every day, even in the depths of winter. On trips to the loo he has seen the Northern Lights and passing moose. When I jokingly whimper about getting wet or cold or chomped by summer mosquitoes, or even stalked by the cougar that recently swiped a neighbor’s pigs, Goward is unapologetic: “That’s real. Life isn’t always comfortable.”

A few final quotes that have stayed with me:

The unit of life may not be an individual but a network, whether among the organisms making up a lichen or the microbes of the human microbiome.

Today [Gowan] sees lichens as a kind of koan. “The lichen by its very nature exists at a portal, a doorway,” he says. “If you look in one direction, it’s an organism. If you look in the other direction, it’s an ecosystem.”

“Lichens are my window,” he says, “but it’s the act of looking at the world that’s the interesting thing.” Systems only hold together in the long term if the parts consider themselves integral to the whole and if the whole protects the parts, as lichens do. “That’s what’s going wrong with us,” he says. “As individuals, we’re not concerned with the whole.”

Written by enviropaul

June 26, 2017 at 4:26 pm

Zoning and the missing middle

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What’s wrong with row houses, exactly?

The missing middle is a newish expression that refers to housing in Vancouver: the middle in question being  something that has a higher density than single-family houses, but not towers.  Think row-houses, low-rise walk-up appartment buildings.  There are good environmental reasons to wish for that type of housing: it decreases the environmental footprint per capita by enabling effective public transit, reducing heating costs, etc.

The missing middle is also touted as a solution to affordability: more homes per area should mean cheaper homes, everything else being equal.  Unfortunately the housing market is anything but a rational market, and simply increasing the supply may not be enough to address the problem.  This has become an election issue, with each party jokeying for solutions (Sam Cooper provided a nice summary in today’s Sun).  Here’s a quote:




NDP housing critic David Eby says B.C.’s next government must get directly involved in building large projects that would produce an “expansion of affordable housing not just for the very poor, but for the middle class in Metro Vancouver.”

Eby points to Asian city-states Singapore and Hong Kong that have faced greater affordability problems than Vancouver, and have responded by building homes only meant for workers.

European economies have also come up with their own approaches; I recently wrote about Mitte Altona in Hamburg, Germany, as an example.  But much as I think that these approaches have a lot of merit, this certainly does not discount that providing more supply is part of the solution.  And the current zoning approach is a problem.

There are actually three forms of missing middle: there is the lack of mid-rise denser housing that we’ve discussed, but there is also the strange hollowing effect that the current zoning produces: an empty middle of single-family houses in Vancouver surrounded by denser development in the suburbs (at the expense of decent transit), as well as the smaller-scale doughnut effect of higher density along the arterial streets but single family houses in between.

The problem is further compounded by the perceived need to preserve heritage values, and by homes left either empty for speculation or used for short-term rental.  Patrick Condon and others have proposed good architectural examples of “middle” architecture that address fears of loss of neighbourhood character.

But not all neighbourhoods have heritage values or character that need to be preserved.  My own neighbourhood, Hastings-Sunrise, is a case in point: there are a few neat buildings, but it’s mostly a fairly bland, if very liveable, area.  My immediate neighbourhood is likely to become an instance of a local doughnut if the development planned along Broadway, Nanaimo, First Avenue, and Renfrew goes ahead.

It’s a shame, and a missed opportunity.  I noticed a new development on 7th: three large houses with three laneway houses in the back.  (The whole thing is ugly as sin but that’s just my opinion.)  They sit on standard 33 foot lots, and will likely sell for at least million and a half, probably more; the developper likely paid at least three million for the three lots.

Three new houses in progress…

…three laneway houses in a row








Needless to say, these will not be affordable to young families, even with the rental income from the laneway home.  And the laneway houses are also problematic.  Yes they should contribute to the supply of rental housing.  But what if the owner, rich enough to afford the property, cannot be bothered with the trouble of finding renters?  Are they liable to be hit with the surtax that owners of emply homes face, in Vancouver?  This may be unlikely, despite the fact that is the spirit of the law.  Nor could they sell the laneway home by itself. Chalk that problem to inflexible zoning, again.

But what if the contractor had been allowed to build row houses?  Depending on the design, this could have made for between six and eight homes.  Add to that the separate laneway houses, and we have, say, ten homes instead of three, well below the million and a half plus asked price.  As a neighbourhood homeowner, I would welcome that on my block.

And if let architects get a bit creative, it would make for a cool neighbourhood.  Below is the video that features Patrick Condon and Scot Hein of UBC giving examples; well worth a look.

Written by enviropaul

April 22, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Flooding in Florida: a preview of our future?

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Photo miami news times

Does anyone ever get used to living with repeated flooding?  As sea levels rise, this is a question that has become pressing.  Greater Vancouver is not immune; False Creek Flats, Crescent Beach, parts of Tsawwassen, to say nothing of Richmond and YVR, all these areas are low-lying at at risk of flooding.  But some other cities are in a worse situation – or should I say, are feeling the impacts sooner.

FLA: the future coastline

Take Southern Florida.  The whole tip of the peninsula is expected to be under water in a few hundred years.  But flooding during high tides is already a common occurrence in places like Miami or Fort Lauderdale.  Indeed, Miami may be the city that is most at risk in terms of financial exposure ($278 billion), even more than other coastal cities such as Guangzhou, New York City, and far worse than better prepared Amsterdam.

Much has been written about flooding in Florida, as any google search will reveal.  I thought I’d go with excerpts of some of the best articles.  For instance, here’s Katherine Bagley (InsideClimateNews) reporting on a flood in Fort Lauderdale (the so-called Venice of America):

Already, water regularly creeps over sea walls, lapping against foundations every few weeks. When the earth, moon and sun align to drive waters as much as 18 inches above normal, the resulting King Tides inundate whole streets and neighborhoods. The city is racing to put climate resiliency measures in place, but they face a nearly impossible foe.

“There are winners and losers,” said Keren Bolter, a climate scientist who grew up here and studies sea level rise. “But in a few decades, most waterfront properties in Fort Lauderdale will flood for days, weeks at a time.”

“See that house right there—the white ranch-style one?” Bolter said one day in late November, during a balmy, sundrenched ride on a yellow water taxi through Fort Lauderdale’s waterways. She glanced at her smartphone to consult a database compiled by her company, Coastal Risk Consulting.  “That property flooded 11 days last year. By the late 2030s it could have water on its property 267 days per year.”

Elizabeth Kolbert visited Miami for the New Yorker.  She writes:

We’d come to a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes where the water was creeping under the security gates and up the driveways. Porsches and Mercedeses sat flooded up to their chassis.

“This is today, you know,” Wanless said. “This isn’t with two feet of sea-level rise.” A truck from the Miami Beach Public Works Department pulled up. The driver asked if we had called City Hall. Apparently, one of the residents of the street had mistaken the high tide for a water-main break. As we were chatting with him, an elderly woman leaning on a walker rounded the corner. She looked at the lake the street had become and wailed, “What am I supposed to do?” The men in the pickup truck agreed to take her home.

[In the Shorecrest neighbourhood] the water on the street was so deep that it was, indeed, hard to tell where it was coming from. [UCS researcher Nicole] Hammer explained that it was emerging from the storm drains. Instead of funnelling rainwater into the bay, as they were designed to do, the drains were directing water from the bay onto the streets. “The infrastructure we have is built for a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said.

Kerri Sheridan describes a flood in the Keys:

On Key Largo, a tropical isle famous for snorkeling and fishing, the floods began in late September. While people expected high tides due to the season and the influence of a super moon, they were taken by surprise when a handful of streets in the lowest-lying neighborhoods stayed inundated for nearly a month with 16-inches (40-centimeters) of saltwater.

By early November, the roads finally dried up. But unusually heavy rains in December brought it all back again.

It has to be stressed: this is not a freak, once in a lifetime flooding.  It is recurrent, common, predictable even.  Given that, it is surprising that the situation has not yet affected the real estate market.  Continues Sheridan:

For now, south Florida real estate is booming. More than half of transactions are paid for in cash, a sign of the powerful influence of foreign investors on the real estate market.

“So far we have not been seeing buyers being concerned with sea level rise, which I’m a little surprised given all the media attention it has garnered lately,” said Lisa Ferringo, president of the Marathon/Lower Keys Board of Realtors.

Adds Bagley:

“All of South Florida is building like crazy, like there is no tomorrow, which is true, unfortunately,” said Wanless, the University of Miami scientist. “The plan is to build these homes and sell them to the Iowa pig farmer who has worked all his life to retire here, or get a nice investment for his grandchildren. They are being hoodwinked.”

This leaves homeowners and banks on the hook for countless dollars in lost property values.

“If we follow the federal government’s estimates, we could be at 6.6 feet by the end of the century,” Wanless continued. “That curve puts us at 2 feet by 2048. That’s barely a mortgage cycle away.”

Eventually, the market is bound to catch up; insurance may no longer be available, banks may no longer offer mortgages.  This creates a vicious cycle; a lot of money is needed to address the problem.  And there is a gentrification angle, compounding the social issues.  Bagley again:

The good news is that much of Fort Lauderdale’s historically black neighborhood, known as Sistrunk, sits on a small hill a few feet higher in elevation than the wealthy oceanfront areas, said [environmental justic activist Audrey] Peterman. But environmental justice advocates worry that even if these communities are spared the worst of sea level rise, they could still lose their homes as wealthier families look to relocate to higher ground.

“It is climate gentrification,” said Nicole Hernandez Hammer, an expert for the Union of Concerned Scientists on how climate change impacts Latinos in Southeastern states. But in South Florida, with the ocean to east, the Everglades to the west, and sea level rise bubbling up through the bedrock, there will be nowhere else for these communities to go.

But what, exactly, is causing the problem?  Why is Florida so much worse than elsewhere?  Part of the problem is that Florida lies over porous limestone.  Explains Bagley:

Fort Lauderdale can’t take the simpler approach of cities like New Orleans or Amsterdam of keeping floods at bay with levees and seawalls. Like most of South Florida, its porous limestone bedrock lets water creep under and through the foundations of any defense, said Hal Wanless.

Compounding the problem is the issue of fresh water.  As sea levels rise, the water tables also rise, and that means less space to absorb rain water.  It also means that salinity levels are rising in water wells.  But most of the fresh water is at the surface, in the Everglades.  The giant wetland is badly polluted (the sugar industry being a key culprit).  But the main problem is simply that the waters of the Everglades need to flow out – into the coastal areas already besieged by coastal flooding.  Kolbert:

Even today, with the Everglades reduced to half its former size, water in the region is constantly being shunted around. The South Florida Water Management District, a state agency, claims that it operates the “world’s largest water control system,” which includes twenty-three hundred miles of canals, sixty-one pump stations, and more than two thousand “water control structures.”

When the system was designed—redesigned, really—in the nineteen-fifties, the water level in the canals could be maintained at least a foot and a half higher than the level of high tide. Thanks to this difference in elevation, water flowed off the land toward the sea. At the same time, there was enough freshwater pushing out to prevent saltwater from pressing in. Owing in part to sea-level rise, the gap has since been cut by about eight inches, and the region faces the discomfiting prospect that, during storms, it will be inundated not just along the coasts but also inland, by rainwater that has nowhere to go. Meanwhile, what’s known as the saltwater front is advancing. One city—Hallandale Beach, just north of Miami—has already had to close most of its drinking wells, because the water is too salty. Many other cities are worried that they will have to do the same.

What is to be done?  There is little help forthcoming from the State, which has managed to tie itself up in knots between denying the reality of climate change and preventing the growth of the solar industry.  As is often the case, the municipalities are left holding the bag.  Some are coming up with innovative flood management approaches at the local level.  Write Joey Flechas and Jenny Staletovich of the Miami Herald:

The sea started boiling up into the street. A major Miami Beach road was under water. Tourists sloshed to hotels through saltwater up to their shins, pants rolled up, suitcases in one hand, shoes in the other.

But one corner of Miami Beach stayed perfectly dry. In Sunset Harbour, which has historically flooded during seasonal high tides, the water was held at bay last month by a radically re-engineered streetscape that will be put to the test again this week with another king tide.

The design — featuring a street and sidewalk perched on an upper tier, 2 ½ feet above the front doors of roadside businesses, and backed by a hulking nearby pump house — represents what one city engineer called “the street of tomorrow.”

I have reproduced the diagrams that accompany the article, above, and these illustrate pretty innovative thinking.  The problem with this sort of systems, though,  is that they are costly, and their effects are strictly local.  Further, their impact can only be temporary if the seas keep rising.  Continue Flechas and Staletovich:

With flooding growing from occasional annoyance to economic concern, in 2012 the city crafted a bold blueprint for overhauling an antiquated stormwater system that relied on gravity to drain into the bay. Higher tides increasingly backed up the drain pipes and even reversed the flow, turning the system into a conduit to pump seawater up through sewer grates onto heavily traveled arteries like Alton Road.

The new system collects flood waters, screens out large debris like plastic bottles and pumps it back out into Biscayne Bay through one-way valves known as backflow preventers that keep rising Biscayne Bay waters from flooding drainage pipes. The plan also calls for raising seawalls, most of which are on private property, and raising some roads.

But even Mayor Philip Levine, the biggest cheerleader of efforts to “rise above” sea level rise, would acknowledge that pumps alone represent a temporary fix – a 30- to 40-year buffer. If future projections hold true, more roads will have to be raised — along with buildings — as the rising sea pushes up through the porous limestone sponge underlying much of South Florida. First floors might have to be vacated, rusting infrastructure replaced, codes and building elevations dramatically beefed up.

Raised road, patio at original level, Miami Beach

This is a pretty daunting prospect, of course.  But, albeit on a smaller scale, it would not be the first time a city picks itself up and raises itself.  Chicago did exactly that.  The city had realized that, being level with Lake Michigan, it was too exposed to floods, and built too low for its sewers to work properly.  First to be raised, in January 1858, was a four-story brick building that was lifted by nearly two meters above grade.  The operation was so successful that all buildings were similarly lifted.  Roads were then built above grades, with sewers and storm drains below.

Or maybe the future approach could be inspired by harbourfront designs in Hamburg, Germany.  In HafenCity, the concept is to allow the flodd waters in; ground floors are built either to be flood proof, or to let flood waters in in such a way that no damage results.  All the buildings are connected by elevated pedestrian walkways and bridges at first-floor levels, so that occupants and workers can still come and go (and reach dry ground downtown, if needed).  This approach was also to retrofit the nearby Speicherstadt district; the Unesco-heritage site, a former warehouse district, is now home to fancy offices, stores and restaurants that can likewise be reached by elevated walkways in the event of a flood.

Then again, maybe Florida will just keep getting flooded.  Does anyone ever get used to living with repeated flooding?  Floridians may well have to, at least judging by the leadership at state level.  Journalist and author Carl Hiassen parodied governor Rick Scott for banning the words “climate change” from the lips and pens of state employees.  Hiassen:

Please pay no attention to recent news reports about my administration banning the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official documents, letters or emails. There is no official ban.

All communications among state employees are routinely diverted for review by my staff members who, when appropriate, re-phrase the content.  For example, residents in Miami Beach are blaming so-called climate change for raising the sea level and causing frequent flooding of streets and neighborhoods.

The crisis poses an undeniable threat to the tourism and real-estate industries, and I’ve acted swiftly. At my direction, the state Department of Environmental Protection will henceforth define the situation in Miami Beach as a “permanent high tide.”

Written by enviropaul

April 9, 2017 at 11:24 am