Given the next Tampa mayor and new City Council members would be termed out of office in eight years, the potential for flooding in 2050 has not been a burning issue before the March 5 election. But several candidates are addressing ways to better protect the city against rising seas, flooding and other impacts of climate change. This is a global problem with ramifications at home, and local leaders need a strategy for confronting this rapidly escalating threat to lives and property.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Charlie Frago recently reported, climate change has taken a back seat to transportation, growth and other bread-and-butter issues in the campaign. City Council member Harry Cohen was the first mayoral candidate to make resiliency a talking point at several forums in early January, warning of the threat that rising seas and flooding pose to public health and safety, property values and the city's infrastructure. Another mayoral candidate, former Tampa police chief Jane Castor, has promised to appoint a sustainability officer within her administration. Several other candidates for mayor and council have also joined in, offering a range of strategies and investments to reduce Tampa's carbon output and to harden its flood protections.
It's no surprise that climate change has become more of a focus in recent weeks. With seven candidates for mayor, and several packed races for council, the candidates are looking to distinguish themselves on an issue of growing public concern. The faster pace of global warming has also forced many Florida communities to embark on billion-dollar improvements to their roads, seawalls, water and wastewater systems and flood defenses. Experts predict coastal waters in the Tampa area will rise 4 feet (from 1992 levels) by 2100, with more serious flooding risks by 2050, exposing thousands of people and billions of dollars in property to higher tides. With Tampa's coastal development patterns dating back a century, and much of its infrastructure many decades old, now is the time to incorporate harder designs as the city invests in the infrastructure for tomorrow.
Tampa has adopted 19 policies in its long-range growth plan that address sea level rise and resiliency, and the city is working to protect its infrastructure across a broad front, from elevating its controls over pumping stations to retrofitting miles of pipeline every year. Beyond these investments, the city should revise its development policies to promote more sustainable growth - density in the urban core, greater use of mass transit, smarter traffic control and new parking codes that reduce the impact of automobiles. The city needs to encourage green space in new construction, greater use of rain barrels and other conservation measures and expansion of the city's tree canopy. It also needs to preserve wetlands and other critical flood defenses.
While the federal government and the states should take the lead on climate policies, local government has a role, given the multibillion dollar investments in local water, sewer and other public works. Tampa's new mayor and council should also seize the opportunity to work with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who included $6 million in his proposed state budget for 2019-20 to help local governments address coastline resiliency and sea level rise. That's a fraction of the money it will take. As a new report by the Ocean Conservancy shows, Florida leads the nation in the value of property and portion of the tax base at risk of "chronic inundation" from sea level rise, which it called "a huge risk to municipal governments." Still, the money will help channel smarter investments, and it signals the role the mayors will play in planning a safer future.