Douglas C. Lyons: The Keys still hold the key to address sea-level rise

Five years ago this December, I took a "climate-change" tour of the Florida Keys. It wasn't the most idyllic of excursions, even if it was time well spent away from the office. Seeing the impact rain and high tide can have on the Keys was eye-opening.

I got an update this week, albeit over the phone. I wish that after years of being on the front lines of warming temperatures and rising seas that Monroe County officials had found the magic bullet to curb the effects of flooding and salt-water incursion. They haven't.

The 40 roads that were on the county's "elevation" and improvements wish list in 2009 are still there. Funding is the issue. The ocean-side golf course in Marathon that had two of its fairways elevated to avoid saltwater is now talking about raising the entire course.

The bleached, bare-limbed pine trees near Watson's Hammock and Blue Hole still stand as reminders that some vegetation and saltwater don't mix, but often do in low-lying areas. Tidal flooding remains a routine occurence for many residents, from Key Largo to Key West.

In 2009, George Neugent, my then-tour guide and still-county commissioner, called the Keys "the canary in the coal mine" when it comes to climate change. To hear him tell it: "The bird's still squawking."

Neugent is a Republican who sees sea-level rise as a legitimate concern. The wish here is more of his colleagues would take the issue seriously, instead of playing dumb.

"Listen, I'm not qualified to debate the science over climate change," U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said to reporters when asked about the science behind climate change.

"I'm not a scientist," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said during a stop in Miami when asked about global warming. Scott gamely talked about state funding for flood control and Everglades restoration, but repeated his "I'm not a scientist" mantra when the questioning continued.

And, there's that global warming gem from Marco Rubio, Florida's junior senator. He told ABC News he didn't "believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it." Of course, he backpedaled. Criticism will do that.

The residents of Monroe County aren't concerned about placating the fossil-fuel fringe. They know the seas have risen nine inches in the past 100 years, and the projections call for even higher levels and, unfortunately, sooner rather than later.

Their priority is to maintain the lifestyle and living conditions that come with residing in the Florida Keys. The cause of sea-level rise isn't as important as effectively addressing it.

"Most of our residents recognize the scientific backing that shows [climate change] is real," Neugent said. "We had 3 billion people on the planet in 1960; it's now over 8 billion. How can you not recognize that there might be an impact from mankind or industry?"

It's that common sense grasp of reality that allows Monroe County officials to talk about extending its infrastructure sales tax, which generates money to improve aging drains and sewer lines and to elevate waterlogged roads, without fear of a tax revolt by residents.

It's why local leaders are appreciative of the $50 million from the state for local waste-water treatment projects, but hope they'll be able to convince legislators to give them more flexibility in future funding to address water problems associated with climate change and sea-level rise.

It's also the reason there's excitement about a new outreach initiative in Key Largo, where local residents and businesses will learn about the impact of sea-level rise and help choose among several solutions to curb it. "It will cost money," said Rhonda Haag, the county's sustainability program manager. "But, it will cost more money if we do nothing."

Meanwhile, further north, signs of sea-level rise have popped up in Broward and other parts of South Florida. Tidal flooding is the norm in some low-lying neighborhoods, and salt-water intrusion is spreading further west, threatening valuable potable water.

Fortunately, Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties have already formed a regional climate change compact to develop plans to address the adverse effects of sea-level rise. Florida, as a whole, could do a lot better.

The are alternatives to becoming the next Atlantis, but reaching those goals call for smarter strategies, commitment and investment, not more talking points that appeal to dummies.

Douglas C. Lyons can be reached at dlyons@sunsentinel.com, or 954-356-4638 . On Twitter@douginflorida.

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