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St. Petersburg to look into expected sea level rise in waterfront master plan

Much of St. Petersburg’s waterfront, shown from the Vinoy Renaissance hotel, left, to the tip of the Albert Whitted Airport runways, right, is barely above sea level. Experts agree that Tampa Bay’s sea level is expected to rise several feet by 2100.
Published Oct. 12, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG

When city officials publicly kicked off the downtown waterfront master planning process in August, they described the nearly seven miles fronting Tampa Bay as a beautiful gem that set the city apart.

What Mayor Rick Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and planning chief Dave Goodwin didn't mention in their remarks to hundreds of residents gathered in a ballroom at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront was the threat of rising sea levels between Coffee Pot Bayou and Lassing Park.

As city residents weigh in on the future of Al Lang Stadium, Albert Whitted Airport, Vinoy Park and the port, the scientific consensus that much of that area might increasingly be threatened by storm surges and mounting drainage problems hasn't been a major topic of the public conversation.

"I don't think it's high enough on the radar screen," council member Karl Nurse said.

Experts agree that Tampa Bay is expected to rise several feet by 2100, although the bulk of that rise will probably occur toward the end of the century, depending on how the world decides to tackle global warming. Much of St. Petersburg's waterfront is barely above sea level.

Goodwin said city staffers met late last week with Gary Mitchum, oceanographer at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, member of the Pier selection committee and expert on rising sea levels, to discuss how the city can account for rising sea levels.

"Part of the journey of this plan is to get a handle on it and deal with it," Goodwin said. "It's one of the core issues."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' midrange prediction calls for sea levels to rise 3.2 feet in St. Petersburg by 2100, virtually guaranteeing a 5-foot flood within that time span, according to climatecentral.org.

Mitchum said he hasn't had much time to study the waterfront plan yet but no drastic impact from rising water is anticipated in the next 25 years. "There isn't any nightmare scenario," he said.

But drainage will continue to worsen as the water rises, he said, and storm surges are likely to worsen as well.

An antiquated drainage system created in the 1920s and 1930s further compounds the potential problems, council member Darden Rice said.

Still, she doesn't think the issue is being ignored.

"I think we all have our eyes on this," she said.

Cathy Harrelson, chairman of Sustainability Council, a group formed to make the city more environmentally and economically efficient, isn't as sure.

"The city has said they'll account for it — I haven't seen it yet," Harrelson said recently. "I do think it is something that needs to move farther to the front of planning. We shouldn't be doing any kind of structural planning without putting that at the top of the list."

Eckerd College marine scientist David Hastings said the city needs to adapt to higher sea levels that are scientific certainty at this point. Although a global problem, solutions to combat global warming effects can be found on the local level, he said, citing ideas like installing innovative sea walls to planting mangroves.

"It's about leadership," he said.

Kriseman said the city will highlight the issue next month with a panel on rising seas at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival. He mentioned the dilemma in his swearing-in remarks earlier this year, and has lobbied state and federal officials.

"It's going to be part of the conversation moving forward . . . it has to be," Kriseman said. "It's not a plan for next year. It's a plan for the next 50 years."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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