Imagine entire months in parts of St. Petersburg when it floods every day, even when there’s no rain. That scenario may well be in store in the coming years and decades, scientists predict, as sea-level rise becomes not just a fact in a science book but a fact of everyday life. St. Petersburg has been ahead of the curve on mitigating some effects of climate change, but there can’t be any letting up. The water is lapping at the seawalls.
A sobering new study by environmental and marine scientists, including from the University of South Florida, predicts that street flooding on days with no rain — known as “sunny day flooding” — will become much more common. It’s a combination of high tides, changing weather patterns and sea-level rise brought on by a warming planet. Not that there’s any credible doubt remaining about the reality of climate change, but even the staunchest holdout can’t discount a flooded street on a sunny day.
The good news: The normal tidal cycles foretell drops in the maximum height of tides in St. Petersburg for the next several years. The bad news: Around 2033, that cycle enters a phase of higher-than-normal high tides, which will be exacerbated by elevated sea level. That gives local planners about 10 years to harden infrastructure like stormwater and sewer systems for the coming floods. But it means some hard decisions about zoning and permitting have to happen sooner.
Swaths of the Tampa Bay area are barely five feet above sea level, including roads, important sewer infrastructure and, yes, homes. The last thing cities should do is compound the challenge of protecting those investments by allowing development to march on without consideration for future flooding. That might mean requiring an elevated ground floor on new homes in more low-lying neighborhoods, like is already common in beach communities. It could include concessions on the heights of new construction to make up for the lost ground-floor living space. Growth in St. Petersburg is a long-running point of friction, but on generational challenges like climate change, the city must be unified.
Significant public investment will certainly be needed. St. Petersburg has already poured millions into improving its beleaguered sewer system. Hurricane Elsa earlier this month was a big test, and there were no sewage spills as a result of that storm. The city is working on creating resiliency plans against future storm surge and coastal flooding. The state, for its part, is beginning to help communities with that massive task. For the past few years, the state has awarded grants through the Resilient Coastlines Program for 30 coastal communities in 17 coastal counties, including Pinellas, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has pledged to spend $1 billion over four years to harden Florida’s infrastructure against severe weather and rising seas. Cities and counties — even states — cannot fight climate change alone, so federal money has to be part of the strategy. Thankfully, President Joe Biden recognizes Florida’s particular vulnerability in the climate crisis.
St. Petersburg’s next mayor and city council will have to explore creative ways for the city to live with the new reality of rising seas. Building new roads and bridges, shoring up old systems to protect against salt corrosion and even the location of the next high-rise condo tower — these are all decisions that must be made with the threat of frequent floods in mind.
So far, sunny day flooding has been limited to small parts of the Tampa Bay area, but it’s been a headache in larger swaths of South Florida for years. Now we know more of those waters are headed our way.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.