DeSantis signs landmark Florida sea level rise bills into law

The bills represent Florida’s “most robust plan” ever to address the threats posed by future flooding, House Speaker Chris Sprowls said.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, far left, and  Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, far right, listen as Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his address during the joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, far left, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, far right, listen as Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his address during the joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 12, 2021|Updated May 12, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis signed two bills Wednesday that lawmakers say will leave Florida better prepared for future flooding and sea level rise.

The bills, SB 1954 and SB 2514, will — among other things — set aside hundreds of millions of state dollars for flooding infrastructure projects. The Republican-led efforts would redirect a significant portion of that money from an affordable housing trust fund to the storm hardening efforts.

“The Legislature delivered on my calls for meaningful, significant investments in resiliency,” DeSantis said at a bill signing ceremony in Tarpon Springs, surrounded by lawmakers.

Some of the bills’ major provisions:

  • The legislation requires the Department of Environmental Protection to submit an annual plan for up to $100 million in local flooding and sea level rise projects. Local governments can apply for this state money, and the department will rank the applications.
  • The agency will have to compile data every five years which will help determine the risk posed to local communities by sea level rise.
  • Using that data, environmental officials will devise their first ever vulnerability assessment for flooding under sea level rise across Florida. This will also be updated every five years.
  • The University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg will become the home of a new flood research hub. (Thomas Frazer, dean of the school and previously the state’s Chief Science Officer, attended the signing.)
  • Much of the funding for the flood projects and sea level rise research will come from documentary stamp taxes. Lawmakers could redirect more than $100 million per year of that revenue from trust funds aimed at making housing more affordable.

Florida’s Legislature for most of the last decade has taken little action and entertained hardly any public discussion about sea level rise. Dubbed the “Always Ready” agenda, the slate signed Wednesday is lawmakers’ “most robust plan” ever to address the problem, said House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

Standing near Tarpon Springs’ iconic Sponge Docks, he talked about nearby streets flooding during regular heavy rains.

“There is no question of if it will happen — if we will have significant flooding in our state. The question is only, ‘When?’” Sprowls said.

He and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, called for laws making the state more resilient months before the legislative session started in March.

Leaders of several environmental groups expressed support for the state’s plan on Wednesday. Dawn Shirreffs, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Florida director, said in a statement that the bills “will help Florida safeguard our communities from climate change impacts and help local communities invest in their resilience.”

But some environmental groups said the action was belated — and not enough.

While pushing this legislation, Sprowls has brushed aside criticism that state leaders are choosing to focus on expensive consequences of climate change rather than acting on causes. Critics say the state could take more proactive measures like strictly regulating fossil fuel emissions that contribute to warming.

“While it’s progress to see Governor DeSantis and Florida’s Republican leadership at long last acknowledge the harm local communities are seeing because of climate change, this legislation does nothing to get at the root of the problem,” Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, wrote in a statement.

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As it backed the resilience plan this spring, the Legislature also supported bills that critics say will stop cities from moving on their own toward more environmentally friendly energy sources.

“Florida cannot be truly resilient if we continue to preempt clean, renewable energy progress,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of The CLEO Institute, a climate change advocacy group, in a statement. “If the Governor wants to protect the state of Florida and ‘Be Always Ready,’ he will veto harmful energy preemption bills and not waste billions in funds.”

She added: “To put it layman’s terms, this is like mopping a flooded bathroom floor without turning off the faucet.”

Despite the criticism, Wednesday’s signing had an air of celebration. DeSantis called it “a really historic day.” Smiling, he handed out the pens he used to sign the bills to the many attendees.

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