Hillsborough among counties using tool to assess sea-level rise

Published Nov. 3, 2014

MIAMI — A few Florida counties are testing a computer mapping tool that details how vulnerable their roads are to rising sea levels, and perhaps the most surprising thing about it is where it came from.

The state's Department of Transportation funded the map's development, something James Cromar, of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, called "a pleasant surprise," given Gov. Rick Scott's skepticism over whether human behavior is affecting the climate.

The Republican governor's assertion earlier this year that he is "not a scientist" has drawn ridicule from his political opponents, and earlier this month at a regional conference on climate change, White House officials praised local government leaders in attendance for their practicality in addressing sea level rise themselves. Citing a lack of leadership from Tallahassee, a Miami-area suburb recently adopted a resolution calling for South Florida to form its own state to deal with the issue.

But FDOT senior policy analyst Maria Cahill said the mapping tool, which has been available online since late 2013, is consistent with other state initiatives to help local governments plan for community resiliency, including efforts led by the Department of Economic Opportunity. The state's Department of Environmental Protection also has touted various monitoring programs collecting data that could be used to study climate change.

The mapping tool, which visualizes areas of transportation infrastructure that might be vulnerable to rising seas and inland flooding from 2020 through 2100, is intended for local governments to use as they make long-term plans for their infrastructure needs, Cahill said. There are no plans yet to use it to evaluate the potential vulnerability of state transportation assets.

"I think the state recognizes that whatever their feeling is on climate change, they're interested in protecting our economic assets, which is our infrastructure," said Allison Yeh, sustainability coordinator for the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission. "They care about vulnerability from the economic standpoint."

Hillsborough and Broward counties are testing the mapping tool through a Federal Highway Administration climate resilience pilot project. Broward also is testing the tool for three other South Florida counties that have also signed a compact to address climate change adaptation strategies.

FDOT funding through the mapping tool's development and current testing phase has totaled $230,000, said Crystal Goodison, of the University of Florida GeoPlan Center, which has made its animated maps and data publicly available online.

The mapping tool developed from a 2012 study that the FDOT also funded, incorporating sea level rise projections developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Monroe County, which encompasses the low-lying Florida Keys that are linked to the mainland by just one major road, independently used the tool to run flooding models for its 875 miles of state and county roads. The small Atlantic Coast community of Satellite Beach also is working with the GeoPlan Center to customize the tool for its own roads assessment, Goodison said.

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The results in Monroe County: maps highlighted with widening splotches of red that show where the Keys are likely to see increased nuisance flooding over the next several decades.

The tool's value lies not in its potential for drama, but in its reliance on state and federal data, which will help the county secure funding for its transportation projects, said Rhonda Haag, Monroe County's sustainability program manager.

No state transportation policies have developed from the tool so far, but most of Florida has time to carefully plan for any effects from sea level rise, Cahill said.

"What we're doing is focusing on the research and better understanding what data limitations there are," Cahill said. "We're not there yet to make any inferences from the model itself."

Research is good and valuable, as is establishing a consistent methodology, but that research soon has to translate into policy, said Cromar, planning director for the Broward MPO.

"The goal is not a perfect data set — it's to have sufficient data to make smart recommendations and to take action," he said.