Miami Beach combats rising tides with new pump stations

With its historic Art Deco hotels, countless shops, boutiques and international cuisine, Miami Beach offers plenty to see and enjoy away from the water – at least for the near future.

Even on days without rain, larger waves during high tides are causing flooding in Miami Beach, just one effect of climate change. In response, the city of Miami Beach is installing water pumps to move water from the streets of the coastal resort city.

“We have seven pumps coming online this summer,” City Engineer Bruce Mowry said. “And next year, I would hope to have 10 to 15 more pumps.”

Mowry said the city plans to have 60 to 80 pumps running by 2020, depending on the size of the units. The pumps will be placed in locations where a large amount of water from high tide spills onto the streets, and will pipe 14,000 gallons of water back into the sea every minute.

With a $300 million price tag, the pumps are a big purchase for a city with a $502 million annual budget.

“You not only have to have support,” Mowry said. “You have to back the support with finances.”

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The city commission is funding these projects with three $100 million bonds, which allow Miami Beach to borrow money at a low interest rate. Also, a new tax, the Stormwater Utility Fee, is being collected from all homeowners, businesses and hotels.

Despite their high cost, the pumps are necessary to support the constant construction and renovation of resorts and condominiums. Because of its tax structure, Miami Beach relies on its thriving real estate market, especially premium apartments on the coast. Property tax revenue will continue to grow only if buyers are certain their investment is worthwhile.

“There are groups of people who are concerned about their investments in high-end apartment units and their property values being in jeopardy,” said Eileen Nexer, a local real estate agent.

These concerns have fueled plans to have seven new pumps in operation by November. Although this is a milestone for the project, the city has no intention of slowing down soon.

“We’re taking action and moving ahead. We’re not just looking at short term, we’re looking at middle and long term,” Mowry said.

Once construction is completed, the pumps will run constantly to move flood waters. Water will be collected through sewage drains, stored in reservoirs and pumped back into the ocean through a sea wall in Biscayne Bay.

An initial concern was the condition of the water being sent back because the water comes into contact with trash, motor oil and other contaminants. As a result, the collected water must be treated and decontaminated. Mowry said he hopes to see similar projects in other at-risk areas.

“Sea level rise isn’t just happening in Miami Beach,” said Mowry. “It’s worldwide.”

Mowry said unprecedented construction makes it difficult to manage traffic, nightlife and major infrastructure changes.

“It’s always a challenge to do construction while keeping a city moving.” Mowry said.

Even with the disruption, local residents have supported the pump installations since construction began.

“We need their involvement and we need their investment into the future,” Mowry said.

Even after all pumps are installed, efforts to combat sea level rise will be far from over and alternative solutions are being considered.

One of the most daring ideas is to elevate the entire city up to four feet off the ground, which would involve major structural modification to the entire city’s infrastructure.

“We have staff today working on solutions that really don’t have to be completed for 20 years,” Mowry said.

“The city has the drive, the vision and the support to do this,” Mowry said. “We’re rising above, we’re gonna take on the challenge, and we’re gonna succeed.”