As rising sea levels cause flooding more often in Florida, the state’s first city has a concern as old as civilization itself.
St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver stands atop the city’s wastewater treatment plant, the city asset most vulnerable to sea level rise.
Photo courtesy of the city of St. Augustine Public Affairs Department.
“If there’s one thing that’s absolutely certain, people expect their toilets to flush,” St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver told Historic City News.
To guarantee that, the city will need to find a way to keep its sewage treatment plant above water. Protecting St. Augustine’s most vulnerable asset, she said, could cost as much as $100 million, twice the city’s annual budget.
As the ocean rises, the outfall for the plant — on a marsh along the San Sebastian River — is “no longer going to fall out,” said Shaver. “You-know-what doesn’t run uphill, and we have a gravity sewer system. If it can’t run downhill, it’s not going to function.”
Local governments all around Florida’s coast could face similar realities, with storm drains, causeways and other crucial facilities at risk. For some, the costs could be staggering. Rising water also threatens revenue from tourism and high-value waterfront properties.
Forecasts from federal scientists say the expansion of warming oceans, coupled with the addition of water from melting glaciers and polar ice sheets, could raise sea levels 6 to 12 inches around Florida by 2030, and 9 to 23.6 inches by 2050. National Weather Service records already show an increase in the number of coastal flood events across the state over the past five years.
Just as sea levels may be influenced by regional patterns in the ocean, sea level rise planning is being driven in part by regional planning councils in Southwest Florida, Tampa Bay, Northeast Florida and East Central Florida.
In Palm Coast, city officials worked with the regional planning council to assess the city’s vulnerable assets. They found one — a fire station — but at least six feet of sea level rise would be needed to compromise it, said Denise Bevan, city administration coordinator.
Credit the forward thinking of city and county officials, said Bevan and Flagler County Attorney Al Hadeed. Recognizing the community’s 26 miles of saltwater canals would be vulnerable to coastal flooding during hurricanes, the two governments set aside floodplain to reduce the risk along the canals. That put the city and county a step ahead in planning for rising seas.
Ten years ago, Gov. Charlie Crist gathered government officials, businesses and nonprofits in Miami Beach. Crist stood next to then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who implored the state to say “hasta la vista baby” to greenhouse gas emissions — and called for a statewide climate plan.
Florida should have been on the forefront, said Crist, now a St. Petersburg Democrat serving in Congress.
“We’re the state most susceptible to rising seas,” he said. “It all made sense to me, perfect sense.”
Crist organized another climate summit the following year, but then the Great Recession set in. In 2010, Gov. Rick Scott and a new administration took over in Tallahassee and the focus on sea level rise diminished.
Federal agencies, including NOAA and its Sea Grant Florida program, also have assisted in sea level rise planning efforts statewide with workshops and grant funds. Local officials are waiting to see how any changes to the federal budget might impact that work.
The federal government also has its own issues in Florida, where the Department of Defense has studied how its military bases could be impacted by rising seas.
Local governments already are fielding questions from financial institutions asking about long-term plans for resiliency, said Shaver, St. Augustine mayor and board member of the public/private nonprofit Resiliency Florida. “Obviously financial markets expect municipalities to be on top of this, to be doing the right kind of planning and identifying adaptation areas.”
That planning discussion needs to take place in a very deliberate way, she said. “The last thing that anybody wants or needs is to have some kind of real panic about this. We have a long horizon here, so let’s be very smart about it.”