Over the past six months, The Patterson Foundation’s Higher Waters: Suncoast Quality of Life initiative has been connecting with experts to explore and identify the efforts underway to understand the effects of higher waters on our region. Why? Rising levels of our gulf, bays, rivers, and inland waters have the potential to alter our coastlines and landscapes significantly — and, therefore, our quality of life. Hurricane Ian’s catastrophic impacts on people, families, and communities along the Suncoast affirmed the importance of our work.
On November 4, we had our first webversation to reconnect with the experts, share some of our findings, and seek further input on how we, as a community, can proceed to amplify efforts and aspirations. We’ve summarized the many things we’ve learned into three top findings.
- National & local data show that sea-level rise is happening
- Sea-level rise impacts us all— whether we live inland or near the coast
- Action is being taken to address sea-level rise
Water levels have risen – and are rising – globally, in the United States and in Florida. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA), our sea level has risen over the past century, with an increased rate in recent decades.
Scientists at the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program conservatively expect 8 to 9 inches of sea-level rise in our region by 2050. Furthermore, that increase – based on “intermediate-low” projections by NOAA – will add to a 6-inch rise that occurred between 2000 and 2020. And when we think about “higher waters,” it’s important to remember that storm surges and high tides are on top of sea-level rise that causes water to come ashore and cause flooding.
Sea-level Rise Impacts Us All— Whether We Live Inland or Near The Coast
Sea level rise has affected and will increasingly impact people, organizations, and communities. Whether you live inland or near the coast, sea level rise, directly and indirectly, impact our economy, health, infrastructure, environment, and recreation.
Often, those impacted by natural disasters or the effects of the changing climate, such as sea-level rise, have limited means financially or lack the resources to adapt, evacuate, or be resilient. These are the same people who work in our grocery stores, teach in our schools, provide support in our hospitals, and do many things for our community. If sea-level rise, among other things, forces them to move, there will be voids in our workforce. As people look for their next job or consider their next career moves, they’re looking at pay and work-life balance, but they’re also looking at mortgages, property taxes, and flood insurance.
In our region, flood insurance rates are increasing, and some homeowners can’t afford the coverage. People looking to move to the area have to make some hard choices. Although they get a good job offer, the costs associated with living and buying a home in our region just might price them out. Think about the impact that has on our workforce and our ability to attract and retain experts and skilled workers so we can continue evolving and thriving.
Our economic vitality depends on tourists visiting our beaches, restaurants, parks, and arts and culture scenes. Long-term sea-level rise threatens our ability to attract tourists to the Suncoast region to invest dollars in our local businesses, which puts the livelihoods of those dependent on tourism at risk.
In the realm of infrastructure, storm surge on top of sea-level rise poses a risk for transportation, including our roads and bridges— which are all the more essential during natural disasters when people need to evacuate.
In the environment, rising sea level impacts flora and fauna in our rivers and bays. Like a domino effect, even the most subtle changes can disrupt the entire food chain and the ecosystem regulating our bay to help it be resilient.Sea-level rise is already influencing where some people and organizations build, resulting in socioeconomic impacts. For example, consider the following:
- New College of Florida recently launched The New College Challenge to start engaging their community in conversations about coastal, economic, and social resilience. They’re brainstorming new ideas and seeking solutions for the future to ensure the resilience of their campus.
- Sarasota Orchestra is building a new facility of its own inland. Although they’ve considered the idea of building their own facility for years, the risks of sea-level rise wasn’t a big concern a decade ago when they first considered it. However, the most recent reports from engineers and climate consultants raised sea-level rise as a future concern on the bayfront.
- The Bay, which TPF supports through strategic consulting and catalytic funding, is being constructed with sea-level rise concerns and storm surges in mind. Based on existing elevation and sea-level rise projections, they’ve established minimum elevations for roads and structures throughout the site. The west side of the property is flood-able, meaning no harm will be done if that area floods.
Action is Being Taken to Address Sea-level Rise
So, what’s being done about all this? In 2021 a bill was signed into law and established the Resilient Florida Program. The program grants funding for counties, municipalities, water management districts, and more to address the impacts of flooding and sea-level rise. Cities and counties have to conduct vulnerability assessments in the same manner and use the same data. Although vulnerability assessments may already exist, they need updating. For example, the City of Sarasota’s 2017 Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan identifies city-owned assets vulnerable to future climate conditions and strategies for protecting and preserving those assets. Now, there is an opportunity to receive funding assistance to plan for vulnerabilities and implement projects for adaptation and mitigation.
Additionally, the Resilience Act established the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation for researchers to further study the effects of sea-level rise and other environmental issues.
Through our exploration, we’ve been reassured that there are people and organizations who are both passionate and invested in this topic. And now The Patterson Foundation is too. We realize the topic of sea-level rise is large and multifaceted. Addressing it requires us to move from a narrow, issue-oriented mindset to a broad one where we imagine the possibilities that come from using collective resources from multiple sectors. Using the foundation’s approach, we aspire to continue engaging individuals and organizations willing to learn and share their aspirations to prepare our communities for a future with higher waters.