Little River is county’s first attempt to localize sea level rise strategy

As sea level rise continues to threaten South Florida’s future, local officials are imagining the ways that residential landscapes could change to adapt to higher water levels — and they believe that Little River presents a unique opportunity as a place to start.

The neighborhood, near I-95 and 79th Street, is the first that Miami-Dade County’s Office of Resilience is exploring to implement its sea level rise strategy, which was released in February.

The county’s Chief Resilience Officer, James Murley, said the area is unique because it has a low-lying terrain and various building types, and because it falls within multiple jurisdictions.

Murley said that county leaders specifically wanted to look at an area that included unincorporated sections and crossed city limits so that they’d need to work at an intergovernmental level. The territory they chose covers a section of the city of Miami and the entire village of El Portal.

“Often what happens is the city will do something just within its boundaries,” Murley said, “or the county will do it only in unincorporated Dade — where they have direct authority — and leave the problem to the city. Well, the water doesn’t care where the political boundary is.”

In 2020, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection awarded the county with a $75,000 grant as a part of the state’s resilient coastlines program — and the county matched the amount in its own funds in order to begin their efforts within the Little River adaptation action area.

In exchange for the grant, the county will submit a plan to the state that displays its efforts by the end of April. Monica Gregory, who is an adaptation program coordinator for the county’s office, said the plan will include policy and project recommendations tailored specifically for the area.

Of these potential recommendations, Gregory said, septic tank-to-sewer conversion has been popular. Failing septic systems are a source of water pollution and public health issues.

She also said building with blue and green spaces, which are a component of the sea level rise strategy that includes creating pockets for holding water throughout neighborhoods, has resonated with stakeholders of all kinds.

A large part of the county’s work has been engaging with the community, which Murley and Gregory said has been a challenge due to COVID-19 restrictions. As a result, they’ve hosted a series of community forums and online webinars, available on their live adaptation action area project page. They have also made multiple calls to residents.

The office has also been working directly with the two county commissioners whose districts fall within the area. District 2 Commissioner Jean Monestime said he has helped by sharing his knowledge of the area, connecting the office with local community-based organizations and spreading the word about online forums.

But the work doesn’t stop once the state’s grant runs out, Murley said. The next step, he said, is to find the funds to execute some of these recommended changes.

And Gregory said she’d like to see more engagement moving forward.

“We just want to talk to as many people as possible, see what they want to do on their street, figure out what the county and city can actually contribute, and determine what various jurisdictions are planning to do already,” she said.

Denise O’Brien, the Sustainability and Resiliency Task Force Chair for North Bay Village  located on several islands in Biscayne Bay, said her community has its own strategy for sea level rise. Both the county’s and the village’s strategies are dictated by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact’s projections.

The county doesn’t have a specific timeline for developing new adaptation action areas. Murley said others will be named according to need and to where opportunities for funding arise.

Samantha Morell loves to write, draw, take pictures, dance and travel. These are interests she aims to incorporate in her career and lifestyle. She is studying journalism and philosophy at FIU because she believes both subjects make her receptive to new information, as she hopes to always be learning.