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It might be the Pinellas city most threatened by climate change. Here’s what it’s doing to plan.

Tarpon Springs is threatened on two sides by water.
High tide from offshore Hurricane Michael creeps up into the Sponge Docks last year. after the Anclote River backs up. This year, Tarpon Springs formed a citizen sustainability advisory committee to help the city plan for the effects of sea level rise and climate change. [Jim Damaske]
Published Sep. 5
Updated Sep. 5

TARPON SPRINGS — A small city threatened on two sides by water has taken an important early step in the fight against climate change.

Last week, Tarpon Springs officially formed a citizen-led sustainability advisory committee, which will help city officials make a comprehensive climate change plan. Although other cities have similar groups, Tarpon Springs’ will have a unique challenge in combatting the threats posed to a historic city in an age of rising seas.

Dory Larsen, who led the citizen-driven push to form the group, said she hopes the committee can establish concrete goals and priorities for the city. An employee of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Larsen will be an inaugural member.

Susan Glickman, who has worked in the Florida climate change space for decades and is a colleague of Larsen’s at the Alliance for Clean Energy, said the advisory committee will help the city evaluate its needs.

“Before you start a diet, you have to step on a scale,” Glickman said. “They need to get a clear sense of where they are as a community.”

Related story: A group of scientists just presented updated sea level rise projections to Tampa Bay politicians. Here’s what they say.

The group does not have any official power beyond the recommendations it submits to the city. It will work closely with Public Services Director Paul Smith, who is in charge of the city’s sustainability efforts.

Smith noted in an interview that the city has made progress in the sustainability field in recent years: In 2015, for example, the city opened reverse osmosis water treatment facility capable of turning brackish groundwater into drinkable water.

“Sustainability is really built in or baked into our planning operations,” Smith said. “I think what this (committee) is going to do is get a lot more ideas to the table.”

The city may have to act with urgency if it is to keep the surrounding bodies of water at bay. At just two feet of sea level rise, the city will begin to see the Anclote River to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the west spill into nearby development, according to a map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A screen grab of an NOAA tool showing Tarpon Springs under current sea level conditions. [NOAA]
A screen grab of an NOAA tool that shows what Tarpon Springs will look like after two feet of sea level rise. [NOAA]

Two feet of sea level rise is the best case scenario by the end of this century, according to projections from the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, a group of climate scientists.

Glickman said Tarpon Springs should consider hiring a full-time sustainability coordinator to help the city coordinate a climate change approach within the city and with regional partners. Dunedin, Oldsmar, Largo, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County all have dedicated sustainability positions.

But Jacob Karr, a Tarpon Springs city commissioner, said he doesn’t expect the city to create a new staff position just for sustainability.

“I know some residents want to see a sustainability coordinator brought in, but for what it costs in the budget, it doesn’t make sense right now,” Karr said. Between Smith, the new committee and Hank Hodde, Pinellas County’s newly hired sustainability and resiliency coordinator, the city should have all the expertise it needs, Karr said.

The effort to get Tarpon Springs to form the advisory committee started last year, when Larsen, along with a nonprofit advocacy group, Turn the Tide for Tarpon, began petitioning the city in earnest. In January, the city agreed to form the group. (Larsen has since distanced herself from Turn the Tide for Tarpon. Her husband, former city commissioner Jeff Larsen, now oversees it.)

Related story: Tarpon Springs to form sustainability panel

Tarpon Springs started accepting applications to the committee in May, but nearly three months passed before enough people had applied to fill the five-person board.

At an August meeting of Turn the Tide for Tarpon, retiree Joan Jennings said she was worried potential applicants were too intimidated by the new board’s mandate to apply.

“The way the call for citizens came out, it almost sounded like you needed a Ph.D. in climatology,” Jennings said in an interview.

But leaders with Turn the Tide for Tarpon did their best to demystify the application process. Just a few days after its August meeting, the city had finally received enough applicants to fill the board.

Joining Larsen will be Paul Robinson, a doctor and active Turn the Tide for Tarpon member who in July wrote an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times about the health dangers posed by climate change; Denise Mannino, who has blogged about making Tarpon Springs more sustainable; Taylor George Mandalou, a concerned citizen who claims to be pursuing a degree in environmental science and policy from the University of South Florida and Karen Gallagher, another active Tarpon Springs citizen.

The City Commission also appointed two alternates, former city commissioner Robin Saenger and retired teacher Judy Nelson.

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