In mid-May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed two bills into law, both of them intended to improve the state’s storm-hardening and resiliency efforts against flooding and sea-level rise. Among other things, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection will now help lawmakers assess and direct as much as $100 million a year to local governments for proposed projects.

Almost immediately, critics took to the media, saying all of that is well and good, but the strategy ignores the need for a shift toward clean energy to address the root problem of climate change that is causing the flooding and sea-level rise in the first place. “This is like mopping a flooded bathroom floor without turning off the faucet,” Yoca Arditi Rocha, executive director of the nonprofit CLEO Institute, stated in a press release.

Suntex Marinas had to apply for a variance to elevate redeveloped Las Olas Marina’s seawalls above the city-set maximum height (rendering shown).  

Suntex Marinas had to apply for a variance to elevate redeveloped Las Olas Marina’s seawalls above the city-set maximum height (rendering shown).  

The back-and-forth happening in Florida is exactly what the International Council of Marine Industry Associations foresees as a debate that’s poised to affect the whole industry. ICOMIA issued a policy paper in late May stating that, among other things, the industry needs to help shape the climate change agenda instead of merely reacting to government policies — lest lawmakers more keen to “turn off the faucet” begin directly targeting boaters and boating infrastructure.

“If you think of powerboating, of course, we’re burning fuel. That’s naturally seen as a target of policies to reduce it,” Udo Kleinitz, secretary general of ICOMIA, tells Soundings Trade Only. “Does that automatically mean we’re getting displaced? I think the answer is no.”

Kleinitz says ICOMIA intends to develop an action plan showing what the industry has done, what’s being done now, and what will come next, to help stakeholders and policymakers alike make evidence-based decisions in climate-related debates. When a lawmaker trying to address sea-level rise and flooding has choices to make, Kleinitz says, the marine industry not only needs to be at the table, but also must be prepared to support its positions. He says ICOMIA is trying to think holistically about the big-picture conversation, which involves everything from marina infrastructure to boat fuel consumption to propulsion systems to the life cycle of boats themselves, including the climate impacts of initial manufacturing and end-of-life disposal.

“That’s where we have to drive the discussion, to make sure that our points come across in a sensible way,” he says. “It’s going to be so important to have a response to legislators in our advocacy work.”

Right now, Kleinitz says, the industry’s marina sector is at the forefront of the conversation about sea-level rise and flooding simply because marinas are along the coasts. Marina operators and developers are being forced to react to climate-change issues faster than other sectors are.

David Filler, principal at Suntex Marinas, is one of those people. Suntex operates or is redeveloping numerous marinas in Florida, including Las Olas and Bahia Mar in Fort Lauderdale, and Miami Beach Marina in that city.

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“This is a situation that we’re all going to have to face, and it’s not going away,” Filler says. “We’ve tried to do the best we can to think out into the future, to be prudent with our design specs, with the understanding that there’s certain infrastructure challenges that present themselves and may cause us to have to deviate from just doing whatever sounds great on paper.”

Suntex, Filler says, has sometimes found itself wanting to do more than municipalities are currently prepared to allow — making the company an example of how the type of industry leadership ICOMIA wants to achieve can be a struggle on a day-to-day basis. At Las Olas, for instance, Filler says Suntex wanted to elevate the seawalls to 7½ feet above sea level. “We fought the city because their code, when we started this about two years ago, had just been revised to a maximum height of 5½,” he says. “So we had to apply for a variance or a modification to entitle us to do it.”

Municipalities sometimes resist those types of efforts, he says, for myriad reasons. At Las Olas, one question centered on how raising the marina grade to 7½ feet, from a street that’s at 2½ feet, might affect wheelchair users and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There’s also the issue of legacy infrastructure, such as roads, curbs and adjacent buildings. Municipalities are considering how changes in marina infrastructure will affect the rest of an area. In Miami Beach, Filler says, “You can see how they’ve gone through raising some of the roads and raising some of the structures that are now 2 feet below road grade. You might have a retail thing or restaurants with a 2- or 3-foot step down. It’s interesting.”

At the same time, municipalities are still trying to figure out how to proceed themselves. Some of the proposals they’re receiving are eye-popping: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently proposed that a 6-mile-long sea wall that rises up to 20 feet tall needs to be built, cutting right across Miami’s Biscayne Bay at a cost of $6 billion.

Maria Nardi, director of Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces, is also in the process of receiving proposals. Her department operates six marinas and is looking at everything from seawalls to basin parking, ramps and fuel docks when trying to determine resiliency and hardening needs.

Since 2019, her department has been working with a consultant to calculate impact from sea-level rise and then make project recommendations. For three of the county’s marinas, the studies are done, and for the other three, they’re expected to be completed this year — but by their very nature, they are about more than just marine infrastructure.

Marina operators and developers are being forced to react to climate-change issues faster than other sectors, often dealing with decades-old, outdated legacy infrastructure rules and regulations.

Marina operators and developers are being forced to react to climate-change issues faster than other sectors, often dealing with decades-old, outdated legacy infrastructure rules and regulations.

“We’re actually doing it for the coastal parks where the marinas sit,” she says. “The marina is the destination, but you have to go through the parks to really access those marinas in most cases. Understanding the sea-level-rise studies for our parks is really important for our strategies to address our marinas specifically.”

In some cases, she says, the county is dealing with legacy infrastructure such as fixed docks that are decades old, and that are being considered differently for the first time in a long time. The Covid-19 pandemic, she says, actually may have helped the 90-year-old park system’s efforts to rebuild legacy infrastructure. A lot more people than usual wanted to get on the water and into the fresh air last year, a shift that made officials start thinking about the outdoors not just as infrastructure, but instead as critical public health infrastructure.

“It’s not just something you do with extra time,” she says. “That was a big awakening for the entire nation.”

Kleinitz says ICOMIA issued its policy paper so the industry can take as many angles as possible into account as part of the evolving climate-change debate. Infrastructure is getting headlines today, but he sees the bigger-picture debate as being about topics that touch on the whole industry.

“If you think of policy that covers many more aspects — the way we build boats today, the type of boats we build today, and where we will see policies on fuel use and carbon and leaning toward alternatives — this is what we are speaking about,” he says. 

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