Call it a matter of monitoring rising tides, and adapting

City Commission adopts a Bay and Beach Monitoring Plan and a Climate Change Adaptation Plan, with $155,000 in Deepwater Horizon settlement funds going to the programs

Tropical Storm Debby flooded the area of Golden Gate Point in downtown Sarasota in 2012. File photo
Tropical Storm Debby flooded the area of Golden Gate Point in downtown Sarasota in 2012. File photo

Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman watches the tides. “It’s not like Miami yet,” said Chapman, who lives on Hudson Bayou. “But it is something that should scare us.”

City officials are not waiting until fish are swimming in the streets to take action. Earlier this month, the City Commission put a new plan in place to monitor — and ultimately prepare for and adapt to — the impacts of a changing climate.

As sea levels rise, city officials — working with regional partners such as Mote Marine Aquarium, the Southwest Regional Planning Council and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program — will be measuring bay and Gulf of Mexico fluctuations, broadening awareness about climate change and drafting plans that could help Sarasota brace for what the city manager calls a new “era of uncertainty.”

During the City Commission’s Dec. 7 regular meeting, the commissioners approved the use of $155,000 in Deepwater Horizon settlement funds for a Climate Change Adaptation Plan, as well as a Bay and Beach Monitoring Plan. That funding came from the $2.1 million total the city received from the BP settlement compensating communities for the environmental and economic impacts caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Fifteen thousand dollars of the $155,000 allocated on Dec. 7 will go toward bay water level markers. “The goal of [those] markers and signage is to increase the consciousness of residents and visitors to bay water levels and improve the public’s awareness of flood and sea level rise risks,” according to a memo from Stevie Freeman-Montes, the city’s new sustainability manager, who started work in April. The bay level markers should be installed in 2016; among possible locations for them are Marina Jack, Bay Island Park, a piling under the John Ringling Bridge and the 10th Street Boat Ramp. Signage will show rates of erosion over time and actions the city has taken to deal with it.

In addition, the city will hire a consultant to identify and analyze climate change impacts to the municipality, prioritize vulnerabilities and examine adaptation options.

City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo
City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo

After vulnerabilities have been identified through an internal process, city staff can research what other municipalities are doing — nationally and internationally — and prioritize possible projects, based on the probability of a particular problem arising, as well as potential economic and social impacts, Freeman-Montes told The Sarasota News Leader.

Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell said she thinks the city should work with other municipalities in the region, but she emphasized that Sarasota should take the lead on monitoring and preparing for a changing climate. “We need to make a major statement from the city,” Atwell said during the Dec. 7 meeting, “and I think this will do it.”

“It is going to get a lot of people thinking,” Atwell added.

Chapman agreed with Atwell, though she said it will probably take more than the allocated $155,000 to prepare the city for the impacts of climate change. Still, Chapman added, “It is a start.”

Mayor Willie Shaw stressed the potential for water woes beyond occasional flooding. He pointed to how some Florida municipalities — Hallandale Beach, for example — can no longer use their wells because of saltwater intrusion linked to climbing sea levels. Shaw said the city’s adoption of the Climate Change Adaptation and monitoring plans was of “great importance.”

Engaging the community

Stevie Freeman-Montes. Image from LinkedIn
Stevie Freeman-Montes. Image from LinkedIn

A primary focus of Freeman-Montes’ job as the city’s sustainability manager is to review what “the science is telling us” about climate change and how can the city address that.

In 2013 and 2014, the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program led a Chasing the Waves: King Tide Photo Exhibit campaign to illustrate how high the tide rose during the so-called “king tide.” Part of the effort was to prepare people for the possibility of “the high tide is the new normal.” Today, residents remain concerned about that potential, Freeman-Montes said.

Since starting her new job in April, she has spoken to residents of condominium complex associations, members of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association and two church groups.

“People are saying, ‘We are in Florida, and what can we do about this?’” Freeman-Montes said.

The monitoring and adaptation plan will probe questions, ranging from “Will higher tides be a new normal?” to “Will some storms bring intensified impacts to Sarasota?”

Freeman-Monte has already been meeting with representatives of local organizations such as the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and Mote Marine.

For example, Mote staff is interested in how carbon dioxide “levels are impacting the bay health directly,” Freeman-Montes noted. In addition, in 2009, Mote researchers worked on a paper on climate change adaptation, and the organization’s leaders have spoken with Freeman-Montes about it.

The sustainability manager worked for several months on the outline for the Bay and Beach Monitoring Plan and the Climate Change Adaptation Plan before the Dec. 7 commission meeting.

An aerial view shows downtown Miami in 2002. Photo by Towpilot via Wikimedia
An aerial view shows downtown Miami in 2002. Photo by Towpilot via Wikimedia

‘An era of uncertainty’

Although Sarasota contrasts with Miami in numerous ways, both are low-lying waterfront cities, and — as pointed out in a Dec. 21 article in The New Yorker — they both are on land that was situated many miles inland before the glaciers melted at the end of last ice age. The New Yorker story is one of several discussing Miami’s flooding woes that have appeared recently in well-known publications.

As temperatures climb, along with sea levels, national news media attention has been focused on South Florida, where community leaders are closely watching and preparing for the rising waters. Fish swimming in Miami streets — though not a common occurrence — has been noted in media reports and highlighted by President Barack Obama.

Complications created by waters rising up through the state’s limestone subsurface — another issue reported in The New Yorker article — portend a “disturbing scenario” here in Sarasota, Chapman told the News Leader after she read the story.

City Manager Tom Barwin points out that although areas such as Miami Beach appear more vulnerable to current flooding, as a result of their geography, Sarasota remains, after all, a waterfront city. And “we are entering an era of uncertainty,” Barwin told the News Leader.

The program approved by the City Commission, he noted, comprises three elements designed to prepare the city for that uncertain environment: monitoring, awareness and, ultimately, adaptation.


A South Beach street in Miami is flooded in 2009. Photo by maxstrz via Wikimedia
A South Beach street in Miami is flooded in 2009. Photo by maxstrz via Wikimedia

He says he would like for the city to have a plan ready when, or if, the Federal Government makes funding available for “adaptation projects” designed to combat impacts resulting from climate change.

The city is already working with Mote to test a “living seawall” next year, to determine whether the project can lessen the velocity of waves and help seagrass beds take root.

Bolstering, or relocating, important infrastructure is another type of potential adaptation project. The city would look globally to examples of cities and towns taking steps to brace for the impacts of climate change, Freeman-Montes said.

One major goal of the monitoring and adaptation plan, however, is a simple one: to help residents and visitors understand the “water levels and how they are changing over time,” Barwin said during the Dec. 7 meeting.

The big question

An aerial view shows neighborhoods along Hudson Bayou in Sarasota. Photo from Google Maps
An aerial view shows neighborhoods along Hudson Bayou in Sarasota. Photo from Google Maps

One significant looming question is how rising seas will affect development densities and construction in the decades ahead.

For Chapman, the problem became clear as she looked at the city’s future land use planning document. “One chapter shows red zones where there are coastal high hazard [flood] areas. And then if you look at the density map, you say, ‘Wait a minute.’”

She added, “There is a cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants to live on the waterfront. But when you look at the coastal high water zones, those are some of the densest areas.”

Chapman does not have an answer, but she knows it is a tough issue that will have to be considered.

“How we are going to address it is another issue,” Chapman said.

The commissioner raised that topic during the Dec. 7 meeting. “I guess this is a ‘What if’ question: What if the adaptation plan shows no more high-density development on not only Lido, but maybe no more [high density] downtown?” Chapman asked.

The adaptation plan “means difficult decisions, too,” at some point, she noted. “It is not so easy an answer when you talk about downtown densities and density on the bayfront,” Chapman said.

Atwell agreed that the adaptation plan, which she supports, could eventually “beg the question, What will we do now?”

Atwell also called the monitoring and adaptation plan a model. “Everyone will be watching us,” she pointed out.