I’m in Miami for the next five days attending the annual conference for the Society of Environmental Journalists (Before you get jealous, wait til I post a picture; it’s totally dark and rainy!). The agenda is packed with fascinating environmental news topics; tonight the entire Cousteau family will be here talking about their father/grandfather, French explorer and oceanography guru Jaques Cousteau.
I will keep you posted, but wanted you to know why all of a sudden the blog will have a South Florida tinge to it. Starting now.
To get a sense for what kind of environmental issues affect people here, I flagged down Kenny Broad, director of the University of Miami’s Abes Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy and also a Miami native. He said some of the issues that are unique to Miami involve immigrants with different customs, development of the coastlines, sea level rise and tourists who want to sportfish and jet-ski in valuable ecosystems. The more we talked, the more I could see direct parallels to conflicts in the Northwest. See if you agree:
1. Lack of awareness among newcomers:
“Not many people who live here were born here,” said Broad. “There are people who were born all over the world. In Latin America, there’s a different cultural norm, and it can play out in different ways. One is a lack of awareness. People came here for economic opportunities, and they came from places with less regulation. At City of Miami Commission meetings I’ve heard it invoked: ‘I left Cuba because I didn’t have freedom, and now your’e telling me I can’t build a house or development where I want to build.’”
2. Coastal development:
Florida allows a lot more more development on its beaches than California, where new developments require lots of scrutiny and usually some public beach access, Broad said. And it’s “like the opposite” of Oregon, where all the beaches are public. A lot of developers want in, but every new development makes the region more vulnerable to damage from hurricanes and climate change.
“Some of the biggest environmental conflicts are about zoning – moving the urban boundary line for the Everglades – that’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of conflict.
We have much stronger private citizen laws versus public access for our beaches, and we’re much more vulnerable to climate change as a result of costal development,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how we’re putting a larger population at risk by allowing this sort of development. People don’t acknowledge the complex interdependency.”
3. The tourist economy:
The draw of beautiful beaches, coral reefs and diverse critters can be an incentive to protect the environment, said Broad, but tourists bring their own challenges – often in the form of motor boats and fishing rods. A powerful boat manufacturing lobby challenges regulations limiting the number of boats or jet skis allowed in certain natural areas. Developers want to take out some of the natural features – like sea grass at the beach that’s valuable nursery habitat for turtles.
“Where economics can benefit ecology, in theory, is in tourism. If we don’t protect our beaches and coral reefs, forget the natural value – we will not have tourists. But while a lot of people want to come and go snorkeling, a lot more people want to come and go fishing.
We have some internal contradictions. People are here because they love the environment, but their version of the environment is not necessarily the ecologist’s version of a healthy environment.”
4. Saltwater intrusion and sea level rise:
Population growth coupled with sea level rise from climate change put Miami’s drinking water at serious risk of saltwater intrusion, said Broad. South Florida has a really wet rainy season and a pretty dry summer, so water management – including storage for year-round human consumption and agriculture – is also a key issue here.
“Our water comes from groundwater – a shallow aquifer,” he said. “That’s a big issue for two reasons. One, too many people drawing from it can cause saltwater intrusion. And that’s exacerbated by any kind of sea level rise – even just centimeters can inundate the aquifer – it’s a very precarious situation.”
Read more on ecotrope.opb.org