MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Part of the Don’t Trash Our Treasure franchise has included discussing the benefits of restoring mangroves to South Florida’s shorelines, especially when it comes to protecting us from storm surge and sea level rise.
The City of Miami was actually considering banning the planting of new mangroves.
That sparked a heated debate between those in favor of creating living shorelines and those against obstructing million dollar views of Biscayne Bay.
An impassioned chorus of concerned residents and scientists pleaded with City of Miami commissioners at a recent city commission meeting to kill a controversial ordinance sponsored by Commissioner Joe Carollo to ban the planting of mangroves in City of Miami parks.
“Parks are actually one of the last places that we have to actually plant mangroves,” Dr. Rachel Silverstein, Executive Director of Miami Waterkeeper, said during the meeting.
The ordinance was officially withdrawn after Commissioner Ken Russel asked Carollo to pull it.
“Well, it just shows that science and the community of science stood up and informed a political body, and the political body listened,” Russell said. “That’s what should happen.”
Miami-Dade County has been working on mangrove restoration projects for decades. Many scientists believe mangroves are our first line of defense against storm surge and sea level rise.
“They are some of the best ways to actually reduce wave energy,” said Silverstein. “When a wave hits a seawall, it actually gets bigger. When a wave hits mangrove roots, it gets smaller and protects our coastline.”
Not just that, but the mangroves also filter out pollutants, which are those deadly nutrients that are killing Biscayne Bay, while at the same time providing habitat for marine life and birds.
“It is literally the rookery of Biscayne Bay,” said Coconut Grove resident Albert Gomez. “It literally is where everything grows.”
They’re also carbon sinks, helping us fight climate change by storing more carbon than any other tree species.
So why would the city even consider banning them?
“There are some activists within some neighborhoods where we are doing natural shorelines living shorelines and they are against it,” Russell said.
Activists like Morningside resident Elvis Cruz.
“We would lose all of this beautiful picnic space, all this recreational open green space right in front of Biscayne Bay,” Cruz said. “This is a treasure.”
Cruz has done his homework and points to a study conducted by a University of Florida researcher that says a thin barrier of coastal mangroves would in fact offer little protection, adding you’d need a mangrove forest at least 100 meters wide.
“Mangroves are not magic,” Cruz said. “They cannot defy the laws of physics. They cannot stop a wall of water being pushed by 100 plus mile an hour hurricane force winds.”
But that all depends on who you ask.
Study after study also documents the benefits of planting mangroves.
“Even a small fringe of mangrove contributes to protection against storm surge,” said University of Miami scientist Amy Clement, who also acknowledged that a wider planting would create more of a barrier.
“The first row is the most significant, with the benefits of each successive row being proportionately less than the first,” she said.
Added Silverstein: “Every expert I’ve ever spoken to on resiliency on mangroves, specifically or on broader green infrastructure, has said mangroves are one of the best tools in the toolbox that we have.”
In fact, when the Army Corps of Engineers recently proposed building a $4.6 billion 20-foot sea wall along Biscayne Bay to protect Brickell, the City of Miami said no thanks, preferring the corps come back with a new plan that also incorporates mangroves.
“We actually Jujutsu’ed them into giving us the option of a green hybrid version instead of the wall, and that’s where we’re heading,” Russell said. “Ordinances like this would disallow that. And we probably lose that $8 billion investment from the Army Corps.”
Still, Cruz and others don’t like it, fearing the mangroves will just grow wild.
“Yes, they are native, but they’re also invasive,” Cruz said.
When asked by Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre if he considers them invasive because they block his view, Cruz replied, “No because they do what they do. They invade an area.”
But both local and state law allow for the trimming of mangroves, and there’s also lifted walkways, like one in Coconut Grove’s Peacock Park, that still provide public access to the bay with expansive views.
For Coconut Grove residents like Albert Gomez, it is about working with nature, not against it.
“You have to be able to strike a balance,” Gomez said. “And that balance means that we protect this first, as opposed to just not in my backyard.”
Just because the ordinance has been withdrawn doesn’t mean it can’t be brought back at a later time in some other incarnation, and those advocating for mangrove restoration and living shorelines say they’re not taking their eye of the ball, not for a second.