Sebring - Polar bears and their melting habitat sent a wake-up call to South Florida water managers Wednesday.
The same day the federal government added the polar bear to the endangered species list because of global warming, South Florida water managers agreed to take a yearlong look at how melting ice could raise sea levels that could claim the southern part of the state.
The South Florida Water Management District's long-term plans once anticipated the sea level rising about 1 foot by 2100, but more recent projections say the rise could be five times as much.
That could move the southern tip of Florida's mainland to the Tamiami Trail and submerge swaths of some of the most populated areas along the southeast coast.
From flooding to more saltwater seeping in and fouling drinking water supplies, climate change is an issue that needs more attention, said Jayantha Obeysekera, who will lead the district's global warming review.
"We cannot put up walls and stop the sea level," Obeysekera said. "Let's start looking at it [and] see what our vulnerabilities are."
On Wednesday, district officials called for spending $100,000 over the next year to study the threat of climate change.
The district, which has a $1.3 billion budget, might need to do more, governing board member Charles Dauray said.
Though Dauray said his skepticism about global warming remains, he also said a rise in the sea level could factor into decisions about whether to pursue seawater desalination plants and how to proceed with Everglades restoration.
"We might be coming to some pretty important forks in the road," Dauray said. "We better look at it pretty seriously."
Board member Michael Collins said $100,000 would be a good start until more is known about climate change.
"The data is all over the map," said Collins, who represents the Florida Keys.
Even if the worst-case scenario doesn't play out, a less dramatic rise in the sea level could create problems for South Florida, said Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the agency.
If the sea level rises 2 feet, the vast system of drainage canals that relies on gravity to keep South Florida dry will not work, Wehle said. That would mean investing in pumps to push water out to sea, she said.
Saltwater from the ocean for decades has been seeping in and threatening freshwater wells near the coast. The district might need to consider creating new well fields farther inland, Wehle said.
In addition, the state and federal government are in the midst of a multibillion-dollar effort to restore water flows to the Everglades. Rising sea levels could mean changing those restoration plans, she said.
Climate change is the biggest challenge the district, and all governments, must face, board member Shannon Estenoz said.
"We don't have the luxury of waiting," Estenoz said.
Coincidently, the district's governing board on Wednesday met in Sebring, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, which Board Chairman Eric Buermann pointed out was once Florida's southern tip.
"It may be again," Buermann said.
Andy Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-228-5504