L to R: Michael Corley, Rachel Hettinger, Tom Tryon, Kiarra Louis
Higher Waters: Suncoast Quality of Life


Higher Waters: Suncoast Quality of Life

The Purpose

The Suncoast’s waters and shores are among its most vital resources. Rising levels of our gulf, bays, rivers, and inland waters have the potential to significantly alter our coastlines and landscapes — and, therefore, our quality of life. Understanding the realities of this phenomenon in our region can create opportunities for people, organizations, and communities to thrive beyond the current and potential impact of higher waters. Experts representing multiple sectors are diligently examining this complex topic here and across the nation, yielding compelling data and learnings that can inform our region’s response to its challenges.

Strengthening the Impact

The Higher Waters: Suncoast Quality of Life initiative explores the realities of this phenomenon by connecting with experts and efforts underway to understand its effects. As it learns from their research and experience, The Patterson Foundation aspires to share its findings in various ways, including the creation of a repository of science-based, easily accessible data on rising water levels in Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties.


Click on frequently asked questions below to learn more about this initiative...

Why is The Patterson Foundation supporting this initiative?

The Suncoast has a wealth of bays, rivers, and inland waters that define our region and affect the quality of life in Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties. People in our region have a common interest in identifying the threats from rising seas and the opportunities for ensuring that shorelines and inland areas are resilient now and in the future.

The Patterson Foundation strengthens the efforts of people, organizations, and communities by focusing on issues that address common aspirations and foster wide participation. Rising water levels have the potential to significantly impact not only our world but also our local communities.

How will The Patterson Foundation invest in this initiative?

Through this initiative, The Patterson Foundation is connecting with experts and identifying the efforts underway to understand the effects of higher waters.

As it learns from their research and experience, The Patterson Foundation aspires to share its findings in various ways, including creating a repository of science-based, easily accessible data on rising water levels in Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties. This will include charts, maps, and other resources that clearly and thoroughly illustrate the current and projected impact of higher waters on our shores.

Are our water levels rising?

Yes. 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. In 2020, the global sea level was 3.6 inches (91.3 millimeters) above the 1993 average — the highest annual average in the satellite record (1993–present).

In the waters near Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties, satellite-based measurements have shown a steady increase in local sea level since 1950 — about 1.2 inches (30.5 millimeters) every ten years. Rising seas can produce coastal flooding that impacts other bodies of water located inland.

How much are water levels expected to rise in the Sarasota Bay area by 2050?

Scientists at the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) have studied sea-level rise projections and applied them to our region's waters. The SBEP uses these measurements for the time between 2020 and 2050: 9 inches and 14 inches. The 9 inches is based on the "best-fit equation for the last 20 years of data at the St. Petersburg water-level gauge, extrapolated to 2050 from a start in 2020."

In other words, the Estuary Program's scientists expect 8 to 9 more inches of sea-level rise by 2050, on top of the approximately 6 inches of rise recorded between 2000 and 2020.

Why are our waters rising?

Our waters, including our seas, rivers, creeks, and lakes, are rising for several reasons.

  • Climate: Rising air and water temperatures are melting glaciers and ice sheets, thus increasing water levels.

  • High Tides & King Tides: Tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull, causing it to pull the waters towards it onshore. The stronger the gravitational force, the stronger the tide. During high tides, water from the sea comes onshore and floods nearby low-lying areas, causing “nuisance flooding.” Similarly, when tides are higher than usual, they are called king tides (also known as sunny day floods) and can cause flooding too.
  • Rain: Rain intensity has increased as global and local air temperatures have risen.
  • Excessive Heat: Excessive heat can increase extreme rainfall.
  • Storm Surges: Hurricanes and other strong storms can force water to surge over land, causing floods and often significant damage to infrastructure and buildings. Storm-related surges will come on top of rising water levels, compounding the potential for severe damage.

NOAAs Storm Surge Illustration

Source: NOAA’s Storm Surge Illustration

Do higher waters only impact those who live near the coast?

Higher waters affect us all, whether we live on the coast or inland. Those who live inland can experience flooding due to storm surges and rainfall, which can be exacerbated by drainage-system failures triggered by sea-water inundation.

How do higher waters impact our community?

Higher waters impact all of us, indirectly and directly, whether we live near the coast or inland. Here are some ways it affects people, organizations, and communities:

Arts, Culture, & Recreation
  • Historical and cultural resources are not only a legacy of the past but significant sources of our tourist economy. These sites can be vulnerable to flooding and higher waters.
  • Sea-level rise also affects our beaches since it causes coastal erosion and requires beaches to be renourished with sand.
  • Public and open spaces for recreation are essential to help communities thrive. Flooding impacts our ability to do so in our parks and other areas.

  • Service, retail/trade, finance, and real estate industries are likely to be impacted by higher waters, affecting the economic health of our counties, region, and state. Businesses, such as those closer to the coast, experience a loss in revenue if they have to temporarily or permanently close due to flooding. Their employees experience a loss in wages if they cannot get to work because of flooded roads.
  • Flood Insurance rates are increasing in response to the growing risks of frequent flooding and storm surge.

  • Higher waters lead to general changes in the chemistry and pH of bodies of water. These changes impact the entire ecosystem, starting with the smallest prey and moving up the food chain to large predators. Their numbers decrease as it becomes more challenging for prey to find food for survival. As available prey decreases, predators are more likely to compete for food and either change locations if possible or risk dying out.
  • Seagrasses are essential plants found in coastal waters. They provide significant functions for coastal ecosystems, such as offering food, habitat, and nursery areas for many marine species. In our region, they provide food for manatees and housing for young fish. A positive feedback system involving adequate sunlight and seagrasses allows the plant to filter our waters. The more sunlight that penetrates the water and reaches the seagrass, the deeper it expands to further filter the water. However, seagrasses dieback when various pollutants and contaminants reduce water clarity and promote algae growth which reduces the amount of light reaching the seagrasses. The Indian River Lagoon is an extreme example of this.
  • Sea-level rise impacts animals such as dolphins. Dolphins often move to shallow waters to escape noises and personal watercraft that cause injury. As waters rise, the availability of those shallow water environments decreases. When pollutants such as PCB and legacy contaminants increasingly accumulate in the water from the dry land, scientists observed that it shortens the lifespans of male dolphins and kills firstborn calves.
  • Damages caused by storm surges and flooding can cause accidents and injury to residents (including the risk of drowning), limit access to healthcare services, and increase mold exposure.
  • Stormwater can cause flood damage and impact the quality of the water we use to eat and drink. For example, sewage can contaminate our drinking water supply.
  • When essential services experience damage to their infrastructures, such as healthcare facilities, shelters, emergency responses, and more, it disrupts their ability to respond to their residents' needs. Essential services also include human service providers that provide shelter, clothes, and food to their clients.

  • Flooded roads, bridges, pathways, and damaged vehicles such as trains, buses, and cars impact people’s ability to get to work and school, access virtual services, or evacuate in emergencies.

  • Floods can damage the structure of homes and appliances while encouraging the growth of mold and mildew.
  • Individuals living near the coast or along the waterfront experience the immediate impacts of higher waters. However, those in vulnerable and low-lying areas experience flooding, too, due to rainfall and storm surges.

What resources are available to help me assess the situation and my vulnerability?

National/General Resources

Florida Resources
  • Florida Climate Center: The Florida Climate Center (FCC) is part of a three-tiered system that provides climate data and information for the United States.
  • Florida Sea Level Scenario Sketch Planning Tool: This map viewer shows the effects of current and future flood risks related to infrastructure in Florida. The Sketch Tool provides a screening level view of potential flooding under various future scenarios. Learn more here.

What are the economic benefits of addressing higher waters?

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Coastal Management Program's Adaption Planning Guidebook, there is a significant economic value to adapting to and planning for higher waters. A study by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that hazard mitigation saves $6 on average for every $1 spent on federal mitigation grants.

In Florida, ocean and coastal resources contribute around $18 billion annually to the economy and support over 228,000 jobs. As Florida’s number one industry, tourism attracts visitors to the state and the Suncoast region for water-based recreation and activities. Higher waters impact our waters and the people and wildlife that depend on them. Preventing potential losses and investing in the future saves money long term.

See how much a flood could cost you via this interactive site or read this fact sheet.

What legislation addresses rising water levels in Florida?

In May 2021, Senate Bill 1954 was signed into law to create a coordinated approach to Florida’s coastal and inland resiliency. It establishes the Resilient Florida Program to protect Florida’s inland waterways, coastlines, and shores, which are natural defenses against sea-level rise. This investment aims to prepare communities for the impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise, intensified storms, and flooding.

The Resilient Florida Program has available grants for counties, municipalities, water management districts, and more to address the impacts of flooding and sea-level rise. Eligible applicants can receive funding to plan for vulnerabilities by conducting vulnerability assessments and implementing projects for adaptation and mitigation. Funding for grants is scheduled to continue between 2022 and 2024. View grants awarded for the fiscal year 2021-2022 here.

By mandating cities and countries to conduct vulnerability assessments in the same manner and using the same data, the state plans to create a state assessment and plan.

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. The University of South Florida’s Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Research and College of Marine Science will serve as the home base for the Flood Hub.

How can I secure funding from The Patterson Foundation?

Rather than making grants to individual organizations or programs, The Patterson Foundation invests in identified collaborative efforts that incorporate proven practices, data, and wide participation. While The Patterson Foundation is not accepting unsolicited proposals for funding, it values the dedicated efforts underway to foster an understanding of the impact of higher waters.

Who can I contact about this initiative?

For more information, contact initiative manager Tom Tryon: thomastryonfla@gmail.com.

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