DeSantis’ new climate change plan: $270 million for first wave of statewide projects

The plan still has to be approved by the Legislature in the 2022 session, which means it could always be subject to change.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in center, addresses the audience during a news conference at R E Olds Park, 107 Shore Drive W, on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021 in Oldsmar.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in center, addresses the audience during a news conference at R E Olds Park, 107 Shore Drive W, on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021 in Oldsmar. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2021|Updated Dec. 8, 2021

Florida is set to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to adapt to the impacts of climate change — with the promise of much more money on the way.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the “Always Ready Florida” strategy this week during a stop in Oldsmar on Tuesday. He said the three-year plan includes $270 million in state money for more than 76 projects around the state. That total includes $7.6 million for three projects in Pinellas County.

Overall, the state money would help build stormwater pumps and living shorelines to resist storm surge, as well as lay utility cables underground and storm-proof important facilities like fire stations, wastewater treatment centers and libraries around the state. It also could go toward buying out flood-prone homes and vacant land that borders sensitive environmental spaces.

“All the projects included in this plan will enhance efforts to protect our coastlines, communities and shores, and that’s very, very important,” DeSantis said.

This $270 million plan still has to be approved by the Legislature in the 2022 session, which means it could always be subject to change, although Republican leadership in the House has signaled support. For now, it’s made up of a list of projects that were initially submitted to the Resilient Florida grant program, the first-ever pot of state money specifically designed to help cities and counties adapt to climate change. The state’s first climate change plan, a 2008 strategy developed under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, did not go anywhere.

Resilient Florida has an additional $500 million in proposed funding to give out to the more than 500 grant applications still remaining, and these projects don’t need to be approved by the Legislature. Jared Williams, DeSantis’ spokesman, said the winners will be announced “soon.”

“This is just one part, there’s going to be a whole host of other projects announced in the near future with a lot more money,” DeSantis said during the Tuesday news conference. “You’re going to end up seeing well over a billion dollars in this over the next few years.”

DeSantis also introduced his new state chief resilience officer, Wesley Brooks. Florida’s first resilience officer, Julai Nesheiwat, left the role after six months for a job in President Donald Trump’s administration.

Pinellas County’s projects include storm hardening for a water treatment facility in Oldsmar, where Tuesday’s news conference was held, plus a living shoreline in St. Petersburg’s Maximo Park and flood improvements to Bartlett Lake.

The Oldsmar facility has been in service since 1973, along with the control building that houses the electrical equipment that the facility relies on. But that control building is in a floodplain.

“It hasn’t flooded yet, but it’s at risk” said Oldsmar public works director Janice “Nan” Bennett. “This is critical infrastructure, it’s going to give us a lot more resiliency as sea levels rise.”

Bennett said the city put together a climate resiliency plan last year that identified critical infrastructure that was vulnerable, and the control building was one of the top concerns. The funds received through the resiliency grant will be used to help construct a new control building that will be two stories to elevate equipment above the floodplain.

Bennett said the $4.3 million project is expected to take about 12 to 15 months to complete, but that construction won’t impact residents.

”It can’t,” Bennett said. “The waste doesn’t stop, it just keeps coming.”

The largest grant of the two projects awarded to St. Petersburg went to the Bartlett Lake project. The city will match the state’s $1.5 million grant for the $3 million project.

The city advanced this project to tackle substantial flooding around Lake Maggiore and Bartlett Lake following recent heavy rains. That’s because Lake Maggiore functions as an important element of the stormwater system that flows through Bartlett Lake and slows the water down, collecting trash, debris and sediment, before it gets to open water.

Over the years, sediment has built up because of stormwater and runoff from roads. The project, which is expected to begin in April 2022 and be completed by October 2023, would pay for the dredging and testing of sediment, silt and sand for naturally occurring metals and other elements that may need to be disposed of correctly.

The project not only aims to reduce flooding but also improve water quality, said Brejesh Prayman, the city’s engineering and capital improvements director.

The smaller of the two St. Pete projects, the Maximo Park Living Shoreline Project, aims to protect a steadily eroding beach while also helping the water quality and creating habitats for oysters.

Maximo Park is surrounded by the gulf at the southern tip of Pinellas County. It is home to a mound with artifacts from Native Americans. The beach along the southern and northern shorelines has been eroding, exposing some of those artifacts or washing them away entirely.

Barbara Stalbird, the natural and cultural areas manager for St. Petersburg, said the city for the past five years has been trying to consider projects that could help protect the midden while still allowing visitor access to the beach. This project, she says, will increase stabilization of the beach so it doesn’t erode so readily during storms and high tides.

Her department applied for a grant that will help fund the northern shoreline as well as a trench drain to catch runoff before entering the water. The project will receive $342,000, paid out during its first year of funding.

The southern shoreline project, costing around $200,000, is already funded through a 2019 grant from the Tampa Bay Environmental Restoration Fund.

Stalbird said she expects the project to go out to bid and begin in the first quarter of 2022.

Visitors won’t be able to see anything except additional plants on the upland portion of the beach during high tide. But during low tide, sections of oyster bars that help stabilize and clean the water will be visible.

“We hope to see more of these projects popping up in the future,” Stalbird said. “I think it can be a great benefit for a water-surrounded county such as Pinellas and Florida.”

No projects in Hillsborough, Hernando or Pasco counties were listed.

Hillsborough County officials said they weren’t aware of the governor’s project list, but said they weren’t dismayed that it excluded the county. “We are always applying for grants to harden our facilities,” said Chris Wilkerson, a county government spokesman.

Whit Remer, Tampa’s sustainability and resilience officer, said the city had applied for six grants from the state, ranging from sea wall and shoreline protection to vulnerability assessments.

”We are optimistic our projects will be funded in future rounds,” Remer wrote in an email.

South Florida, which requested more money from Resilient Florida than any other region in the state, made up the greatest share of the announced project list. Miami-Dade County alone accounted for 16 of the projects, including money to protect the main library from flooding and hurricanes, install generators at multiple fire stations and fix up Ingram Terrace, the flood-prone affordable housing run by the county.

Times staff writers C.T. Bowen and Charlie Frago contributed to this story.