Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler pledged his support for tackling water issues in Miami-Dade County, Florida, during a Friday appearance with local officials. But Wheeler’s remarks omitted the key driving force behind the area’s water problems — climate change.
Miami and its surrounding areas have been labeled “ground zero” for climate change in no small part because of the threat posed by sea level rise, which is eroding Florida’s coast, a trend scientists say will worsen as global warming accelerates. Sea level rise can contaminate aquifer and agricultural soil in addition to flooding wetlands and eroding habitats for wildlife.
But climate change received no mention during Friday’s press conference at the South District Wastewater Treatment Plant in Miami. Rather than acknowledging the climate impacts already being felt in Miami, Wheeler repeatedly touted the Trump administration’s water policies and infrastructure efforts.
“At EPA, we are working across multiple fronts to help Florida protect its waterways and drinking water,” Wheeler said, announcing a $99.7 million federal loan for a wastewater upgrade in Miami-Dade. The agreement, part of the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), will help to build 14 injection wells to prevent wastewater from entering the Atlantic Ocean.
Prior to the announcement, Jennifer Messemer, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, referenced the impact of sea level rise on the area and the importance of the new loan.
“An additional benefit will be that these newly constructed wells will be resilient to storm surge and take into consideration data related to sea level rise,” she said.
Sea level rise has been rapidly increasing in recent decades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That uptick mostly stems from meltwater caused by thawing glaciers and ice sheets, along with the thermal expansion of warming sea water due to global warming.
But as he announced the loan, Wheeler declined to reference climate change, even as he discussed issues like Florida’s algae crisis, which experts say has also been exacerbated by climate change. Instead, he lauded President Donald Trump’s environmental agenda, which has largely consisted of an onslaught of regulatory rollbacks.
“Our mission at EPA is to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their ZIP code, have clean air, clean water, and clean land,” Wheeler asserted.
Wheeler has historically downplayed the impacts of climate change. In an interview two weeks ago, the EPA administrator argued that “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.” He has also told lawmakers that he hasn’t been fully briefed on the National Climate Assessment (NCA) released last fall, which found climate impacts in full swing across the country, including in Southeastern states like Florida.
Scientists and other experts are clear that absent aggressive action on climate change, water issues in Miami and the rest of Florida will be even worse than they already are, as will additional impacts to infrastructure, public health, and ecosystems.
The most visible challenge is sea level rise, which is swallowing the state’s coast and sinking property values. That is in turn driving climate gentrification in neighborhoods like Miami’s higher-elevation Little Haiti, where lower-income communities of color are being pushed out as wealthier residents seek more secure space.
Hurricanes are also a climate impact felt acutely in Florida, especially as storms grow more frequent and severe as waters warm in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Florida was also plagued by toxic algae in recent months — blue-green algae and another algae type referred to as “red tide” dominated the state’s elections last year. Algae is a natural phenomenon, but it thrives on warm waters and nutrients. Some scientists have speculated that runoff carried by Hurricane Irma in 2017 may have exacerbated the algae crisis last year.
Florida officials have taken some initial steps to address climate impacts. The city of Miami, for instance, is working to address climate gentrification as part of a wider effort to study “the impacts of climate change.” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a staunch conservative, has also touted environmental projects as a key component of his first year in office, with an emphasis on water issues.
The state’s serious water problems have garnered attention from Washington beyond Friday’s announcement. Wheeler’s visit notably comes a week after Trump visited Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater lake, which has experienced numerous problems in recent years including flooding and blue-green algae exposure. Trump’s visit was to view ongoing repairs at Herbert Hoover Dike, the leak-prone system that surrounds the lake.
EPA spokesperson Michael Abboud emphasized in a statement that the two recent visits “made clear not just with words but with actions that it [the Trump administration] prioritizes providing clean water to Floridians as well as all Americans.”
But the president and other top officials continually reject or dismiss the long-term threat of climate change, as well as the the impact it is having now on things like water. Trump’s proposed 2020 budget would slash funding for water programs in states including Florida.
Beyond water issues, offshore drilling is also likely to remain a point of contention, as Florida officials have repeatedly sought to exempt the state from the Trump administration’s efforts to open up virtually all U.S. waters to oil and gas drilling. Environmental activists in Florida have called upon the Senate to reject the nomination of former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt to lead the Interior Department, citing the administration’s offshore fossil fuel ambitions. Neither of Florida’s Republican senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, have promised to vote for Bernhardt yet, citing concerns over offshore drilling.