In the future, Holmes Beach City Hall may be reachable only by boat.
Predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show seaside cities gradually taking on water like a weather-worn ship. Granted, these aren’t immediate changes — the median prediction of sea level rise will reach up to 6 feet of water by the year 2100.
While doubts about climate change’s effects persist throughout the United States, rising seas, acidic oceans and stronger storms are already being felt on the Gulf Coast.
On the front lines, Gulf Coast leaders know it’s there. But what’s being done to address it?
A changing political climate
President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement to a round of applause in the White House Rose Garden. The agreement is a volunteered promise where leaders set their own goals to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gases — gases like methane and carbon dioxide, which culminate in the atmosphere as the “greenhouse effect.” Then the planet warms, the sea rises, storms are more forceful and the ocean becomes slowly more acidic, to name a few. The accord was signed by all countries except Syria and Nicaragua.
Trump offered to revisit and renegotiate the deal, but according to a statement from France, Germany and Italy, it cannot be. He also stated that the U.S. would have to pay “tens of billions of dollars” toward the Green Fund, but only $1 billion of a pledged $3 billion has been entered into the eventual $10.13 billion pot that will be used to help developing countries establish sustainable communities.
But what followed was a domino effect of local and state leaders heeding the call to reduce their impact on climate change, effectively saying, “If you won’t, we will.”
Sarasota Bay’s barrier islands are already feeling the effects of climate change.
But when asked about their reaction to Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the four mayors on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key were decidedly split.
Holmes Beach Mayor Bob Johnson and Longboat Key Mayor Terry Gans said they personally weren’t fans of Trump’s decision.
“I think it was pretty senseless,” Johnson said.
Gans added that collaboration, not isolation, is the way to tackle this issue.
“Personally, I’m not a big fan of government always wanting to get even with some country or some imagined or real slight, especially when there’s really serious subjects to be considered,” Gans said.
Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy said the city is “primarily a small eco-friendly residential and family-oriented beach resort community, not an industrial center,” but they are currently studying how the city’s infrastructure could handle sea level rise over the next 25 to 50 years. Yet he didn’t mind the president’s choice.
“He has the perfect right not to get the country involved in a treaty,” Murphy said. “He exercised his executive power.”
Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon lives right on the beach. He said he knows sea level rise is already there.
I guess the thing is if the water gets too high, we’ll be like Venice.
Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon
“There’s no real high ground. … I guess the thing is if the water gets too high, we’ll be like Venice,” he said.
Would gondola traffic on the island be worse than today’s bumper-to-bumper? That’s a question for a later day.
Shearon said he personally supports Trump’s decision.
“I’m a Republican and I believe that as the president said, I think we’ve just gotten a raw deal,” he said. Aside from echoing the president’s statements on where U.S. money was going and whether other countries were contributing their fair share of goals, Shearon said, “The current deal hasn’t done much.”
But the climate accord was drafted in late 2015 and signed just months later. Climate change doesn’t happen swiftly, and neither does reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s at stake?
South Florida may very well be ground zero for climate change, as an octopus found in a parking garage last year could demonstrate, so why not let them be a teacher, said Longboat Key town manager Dave Bullock.
That’s where Jim Murley comes in. He was named Miami-Dade County’s chief resilience officer in 2015, and he was asked to give a presentation at New College of Florida in April on what Miami was doing to address climate change.
The region has been working on studies and solutions since 2009, through a four-county collaboration called the Southeast Regional Climate Change Compact. The effort has generated a climate action plan, tips on how to deal with king tides and information on ways to make transportation more resilient.
Commissioners and the mayor in Miami-Dade have prioritized sea level rise, Murley said. When pipes need to be upgraded or new developments are being negotiated, projections of sea level rise are now being considered.
The unique porous limestone in South Florida allows them to draw freshwater from the Biscayne Aquifer, Murley said, but “it’s absolutely pervious to saltwater.”
“If it’s pushed by the rising sea, it’s going to try to move inland,” he said.
While Anna Maria Island is hardly Miami, climate change isn’t something to take a chance on, especially for Manatee County. Although the island’s residents only make up about 2 percent of county’s population as of 2014, its beaches are an important part of the economy.
Tourism had an economic impact of more than $1.18 billion last year, up by about $80 million from 2015, according to the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The number of visitors to the area has steadily increased, contributing nearly $50 million in taxes last year.
Without any action, it’s possible that Tampa Bay could face between 1 foot and 4 feet of sea level rise in the next 40 years, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, effectively reducing Anna Maria Island to a sandbar.
Miami’s trials may be good jumping-off points, although sea level rise may affect the Gulf Coast differently. But one city is already diving right in.
On Monday, the Sarasota City Commission unanimously decided to bring back an agenda item on June 19 to vote whether they should commit to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. And last year, the city of Sarasota started conducting its first climate vulnerability assessment.
The city’s sustainability manager Stevie Freeman-Montes, who is taking charge of the project, said the goal of the assessment is to identify the city’s vulnerabilities based on year 2100 projections, whether it’s stormwater, transportation, shorelines or emergency operations.
The main climate threats determined in the interim vulnerability report include sea level rise, storm surge, extreme heat and extreme precipitation. By the year 2050 in Sarasota, the report predicts that there could be 50 to 60 more days over 95 degrees, sea level rise between 3.6 inches and 21 inches, and a greater potential for storm surge. The report suggests to the city that there are 56 different infrastructure elements, 16 transportation pieces and 29 stormwater resources deemed critical to transforming their resiliency to climate change.
“I think that we are trying seriously to understand how we can make our infrastructure more resilient to absorb these impacts, and I think it’s a smart thing to do,” Freeman-Montes said.
Freeman-Montes also coordinates the Intergovernmental Climate Group to discuss what local municipalities are doing to address the issue.
The barrier island mayors say they are aware of how sea level rise might affect their municipalities, but at the very least — some at the very most — are considering future road and line improvements.
“Longboat Key is not going to turn back the tides … or lower the thermometer,” Gans said.
Bullock, the town manager, noted that they’re using the time they have to look at designing a more resilient stormwater system to reduce inundation. Freeman-Montes said the town has tried using duckbill valves to prevent saltwater from getting into their systems.
“In my view, it’s not an emergency. It’s apparently unstoppable,” Bullock said. “It will slowly occur and we will slowly adapt.”
Murphy said his “green” city of Anna Maria has changed the comprehensive plan to include solar energy alternatives to reduce emissions and is studying what sea level rise could do to current and future infrastructure.
As for Manatee County itself, while it doesn’t have a climate vulnerability assessment, parks and natural resources director Charlie Hunsicker said the county is “cognizant of changing climate patterns that bring more frequent and potentially more intense storms.”
While slow in pace, Hunsicker called climate change a “new reality.” In taking into account how sea level rise may affect infrastructure, he added that the county is trying to reduce carbon impacts by planting trees in preserves and moving toward solar.
In particular, Florida Power and Light presented county commissioners a way last week to get even more solar in public places. Through its SolarNow program, where customers can choose to pay $9 monthly to create solar opportunities in their communities, FPL has identified the possibility of adding at least four “solar trees” and at least one solar carport.
Nearly 700 Manatee County customers are already enrolled in the program, which has helped build a solar carport at the Palmetto Estuary Nature Preserve. In its six months of being installed, it has produced nearly 46 megawatts of energy, enough to power more than 7,500 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Hunsicker called Trump’s decision to withdraw from the climate accord a “pause but not a reversal in national policy.” But the county is still looking toward South Florida, and even to Pinellas County with its infrastructure investments, for inspiration in adaptation and footsteps to follow.
“There may not need be a national strategy, but there certainly needs to be a strategy that states can agree on, all the way down to individual sources on energy uses and things we can do to improve our own environment,” Hunsicker said. “Plant a tree. Be the Johnny Appleseed that we all want to be.”