Bill Golden: Rising seas and Florida's economic future

For those of us who care about the future of our nation – and in particular the future of Florida – we must first and foremost acknowledge that it is more than just the climate that is changing.

Sea levels are unquestionably rising. High tides are measurably higher. And drinking wells near our coastlines are increasingly contaminated with salt water intrusion with each passing month. These realities are happening before our very eyes, and we must seriously address these issues in a productive and meaningful way.

Why does it matter?

Florida is literally surrounded by the sea. With nearly 1,200 miles of coastline and more than 650 miles of beautiful beaches, rising sea levels directly and immediately impact virtually every facet of daily life. But these very real changes are more than an environmental threat. With nearly 80 percent of Florida’s GDP coming from coastal counties amounting to an estimated (and staggering) $600 billion annually, Florida’s economy and her economic future are inexorably linked to her coastline, to her beaches and to her ports.

But there is some very good news about this.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have seen that rebuilding, repairing, or improving our coastline, beaches and harbors, pays off with staggering returns. I was personally involved in the massive cleanup of Boston Harbor and helped transform it from one of the dirtiest and most disgusting harbors in America to a booming economic engine of growth and prosperity. The transformation was amazing! Our investment ended up turning the scourge of pollution into a driving force of the New England economy with some estimates showing more than a ten-fold return on the investment. And to this day, that incredible growth continues.

But the paradigm has changed.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the question challenging our nation’s coastlines was one of pollution versus no pollution. As beaches are being washed away and drinking water is becoming contaminated with salt water, today’s choices are different. We now face the concept of beach versus no beach, port versus no port and drinking water versus no drinking water. This presents us with not only a rare challenge, but a very real – and unprecedented – opportunity as well.

It’s a cliché to reclassify a problem as an opportunity in disguise. But we have seen the impact of these kinds of multi-beneficial infrastructure investments, time and time again. In the 1800s it was investment in canals and trains. In the 20th century it was investment in the federal highway system. Today our economic development investment opportunity is in our coastal infrastructure, where we can not only protect our coastal communities, vital infrastructure and natural resources, but also ensure that we use state of the art transportation, communications and utility technology to ensure that Florida meets and exceeds 21st century global competition for tourism, real estate development and new business development.

The high economic return on coastal infrastructure has not only been convincingly demonstrated in Holland and faraway places like Boston, San Francisco or Hoboken, but also in nearby Mobile and New Orleans. When we view the very real changes in Florida’s coastline that are happening every single day as the direct result of rising seas, this is truly a challenge that can – if addressed aggressively and properly – yield incredible economic long-term benefits to the Sunshine State.

Improving our ports (kudos to Gov. Rick Scott for focusing on that), protecting our beaches, and putting real resources into coastal infrastructure will yield billions in economic returns for generations to come. Our national experience has proven repeatedly that multi-beneficial coastal infrastructure investment pays back big time. And with new challenges related to living with water in new ways as sea levels rise, the economic development opportunity for Florida to re-imagine its coasts and realize the opportunity for a bright new economic future has never been greater.

Bill Golden is the executive director of the National Institute for Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure, Boston, Massachusetts, and is the keynote speaker at this week’s Mayors Mean Business Summit being hosted by the Florida League of Mayors in Orlando, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida. 

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