Column: A Tampa Bay approach to make region more resilient against flooding, storms

Associated Press Key West has been dealing with frequent flooding for years, as has Miami. Rising sea levels will also affect the Tampa Bay area and a regional effort is being organized to help deal with it.
Associated Press Key West has been dealing with frequent flooding for years, as has Miami. Rising sea levels will also affect the Tampa Bay area and a regional effort is being organized to help deal with it.
Published July 20, 2018

It seems like we have been inundated lately with news stories about growing threats to Florida's economy and quality of life from hazards to our natural environment.

Whether it's pollution, as recently reported in the Tampa Bay Times, in our waterways from single-use plastics or more frequent and longer-lasting toxic algae blooms sending anglers and beachgoers fleeing, we have challenges that must be addressed.

Unfortunately, plastic pollution and algae are just two of the many critical environmental issues that we face today in the Tampa Bay region.

In 2015, local scientists predicted that sea levels in Tampa Bay will rise between six inches and more than two feet by the middle of the century. The City of Tampa was also ranked by a firm that creates models for the insurance industry as the most vulnerable metropolitan area in the United States to storm surge, with $175 billion in potential losses. Two other Gulf Coast cities — Fort Myers and Sarasota —also made the Top 8 list.

Two years later, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council studied the economic impacts of sea level rise using Geographic Information Systems, property records and employment data. They found that year-round flooding could have as much as a $162 billion impact on the regional economy.

It's plain to see that it's time for action. As sea levels rise, we can expect to see greater storm surge, more intense rain events and an increase in hurricane intensity, according to NASA hurricane and climate scientist Timothy Hall. At a recent presentation to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, Dr. Hall said, "There will be more Category 3, Category 4, Category 5 storms — the major hurricanes. In fact, there will be storms that achieve intensity levels never seen before historically."

Faced with daunting challenges like sea level rise and increasing hurricane intensity, local government officials must strengthen efforts to protect our communities and our natural resources by working together to become more resilient at a regional level.

The good news is that an effort is under way in our region to bring local governments together to develop a Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, which would allow local counties and municipalities on Florida's west coast to collaborate on solutions to make our communities more resilient, healthy and safe.

The coalition would include Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties and dozens of city governments. Together, local communities will develop a regional resiliency action plan. Plans are under way for coalition members to sign an agreement to collaborate in early October. Already, the Pinellas and Citrus County Commissions have approved the Memorandum of Understanding. This regional effort is well under way.

Four southeast Florida counties — Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach — formed a similar coalition and signed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in 2010. Some 35 local governments have since signed on, and they have implemented numerous initiatives to both adapt to climate change and reduce emission to mitigate the worst potential impacts. They also jointly advocate for state and federal funding.

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Our region, our community will be best served if we follow suit and get out in front of these problems. Though the challenges before us are great, there is reason to be hopeful if we act now.

Solutions are available that will help us both adapt to the impacts in the pipeline and to move to clean energy solutions so as to reduce our vulnerability. These solutions range from infrastructure improvements for storm-water drainage systems and solar power to electric vehicle ready charging systems. Many solutions have the added benefit of creating jobs and boosting local economies.

There is no shortage of possibilities for making our communities more resilient. Working together at a regional level will give our local governments the extra boost they need to enact tangible solutions.

With our tourism-based economy, let's make sure we protect our environment — the clean air and clean beaches — that make up this paradise we call home.

Let's ensure resilience against flooding, storm surge and increasingly strong hurricane winds. Let's work together regionally so the Tampa Bay region remains a place where both our economy and our natural resources can thrive.

Janet Long is a member of the Pinellas County Commission and chairs the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. Susan Glickman is the Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.