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FAU Study Finds Climate Change Impacts will Require Huge New Investments in Southeast Florida’s Water Infrastructure

Sea Level Rise Could Cause Coastal Inundation of Saltwater Contamination

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL (October 19, 2011) – Florida Atlantic University science and engineering researchers within the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and College of Engineering and Computer Science today released a study indicating that climate change will cause significant impacts on Southeast Florida’s water infrastructure, attributable to sea level rise and growing variation in seasonal rainfall patterns with more intense periods of drought alternating with increased torrential rainfall events.

The research report, “Southeast Florida’s Resilient Water Resources,” and the case study titled “Improving the Resilience of a Municipal Water Utility” exemplified that — as a consequence of climate change impacts — Southeast Florida water utilities will face a number of challenges, including inundation of low-lying coastal areas; saltwater contamination of well fields; malfunction of septic tanks and drainage systems; reduction in soil capacity to store rainfall; and reduced efficiency of stormwater drainage canals and flood gates, among others. Strategies to manage these challenges would require substantial economic investments in the order of $500 million to $1 billion over the next 70 to 100 years. To support these improvements, household utility bills could increase by as much as $100 per month.

“Significant challenges to the water systems in Southeast Florida due to climate change are expected to begin within the next two decades. Water managers will have to contend with increasing saltwater intrusion and more intense drought. Furthermore, risk of flooding will increase as a result of more intense rain storms coupled with sea level rise that will cause reduced capacity of flood control systems,” said Barry Heimlich, research affiliate with the FAU’s Florida Center for Environmental Studies, who led the study. “Early notice of this study’s findings helped raise awareness of these issues and encouraged regional water managers to incorporate climate change in water resource planning and begin development of flexible adaptation strategies to be implemented over the coming decades.”

According to the study, the water infrastructure in Florida is complex and capital intensive. Much of it was designed and installed more than 50 years ago, long before climate change was considered a threat. Sea level rise of approximately six inches since then is already stressing the system today. A regional science work group, including Heimlich and other regional experts, established planning guidelines for sea level rise of three to seven inches above 2010 levels by 2030 and nine to 24 inches by 2060.

“We developed an adaptation planning toolkit of advanced engineering and conservation alternatives for offsetting projected sea level rise and other climate change impacts on southeast Florida’s water resources,” said Frederick Bloetscher, Ph.D., associate professor in FAU’s department of civil, environmental and geomatics engineering within the College of Engineering and Computer Science, who led a case study looking at the water infrastructure in the City of Pompano Beach that typifies the challenges faced by utilities throughout the region. “This report reveals the tangible economic implications. Adaptation strategies for municipal water utilities could require substantial capital expenditures and operating cost increases to counter the effects of sea level rise.”

“Climate change is not just some far away phenomenon, as we already see the effects of rising sea level on low-lying coastal areas,” said Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, who played a lead role in the formation of a Regional Climate Change Compact with neighboring Southeast Florida counties. “The FAU study reveals the impacts that future increases can pose for our wellfields, stormwater drainage and sewer systems.  Substantial investments will be needed to deal with these issues across the region.”
            Recommendations of this study are in the process of being adopted, including reevaluation of current policies and incorporating climate change into water resource planning; exchange of information among scientists, engineers, water managers and decision-makers; quantitative evaluation and modeling of the vulnerability of flood control structures and stormwater drainage systems, and development of plans for their enhancement; assessment and modeling of the impacts of climate change on freshwater supplies; planning for protection of freshwater supplies and alternative water sources, as well as the development and implementation of increased freshwater storage and conservation programs to protect against water shortages.

“Southeast Florida’s Resilient Water Resources” and “Improving the Resilience of a Municipal Water Utility” are available online at in the publications section.


Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. In commemoration of its origin, FAU is celebrating its 50th anniversary throughout 2011. Today, the University serves more than 29,000 undergraduate and graduate students on seven campuses and sites. FAU’s world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information, visit

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