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Tampa Bay Cities Unite In Effort To Combat Climate Change

People on the front lines of climate change gathered Tuesday in St. Petersburg.  The meeting was hosted by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, which was the driving force in organizing and forming the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Council to address the problems posted by climate change.

The host city has garnered a reputation as being on the front lines of taking action to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says his city has made strides, including getting named as the first "green" city in the nation.

"But despite this progress, I think we all know that we're still playing catch-up," he said. "At this point, the goal is not to stop the seas from rising tomorrow, but to mitigate, so perhaps we can stop those seas from rising even higher in the future."

Kriseman said in the absence of action from Washington - and a lack of resources coming from Tallahassee - the bulk of climate change action right now is on the local level. And that will take more than one city going it alone.

"We still have a lot of work to do. All of us have a lot of work to do," he said. "But for the first time ever, we're doing it together. And that's the new spirit of the Tampa Bay region. And there is simply too much at stake for that spirit of cooperation to be anything other than resilient in our moving forward."

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor says her city is doing a resiliency study that should be complete in several months. She has made a pledge that 100 percent of all city-owned assets will be sustainable by 2045.

The problems climate change pose aren't restricted to waves lapping at waterfront homes. Hernando County's plan goes nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico - the limit of state waters.

Keith Kolasa has been tasked with starting a resiliency program in Hernando, where a shallow coastline  faces one of the greatest threats in the region from rising seas.

"The thing is, prevention is a lot less expensive than restoration," he said. "And as a water resource manager, I've worked 30 years in that field. You can spend a lot of money on restoration, and maybe a tenth of that on prevention, and save those areas that are still pristine and in good shape."

Kolasa adds that they're trying to protect sea grass beds that slow down damaging waves by creating artificial reefs and restoring oyster beds.

He said those shallow beds have a lot of submerged organic matter that could be released into the Gulf, potentially causing more algae blooms.

They have applied for $1 million in grants to help create new oyster reefs and "living shorelines."

"Those should make the shorelines more resilient from wave action," he said. "So it'll be interesting to see how those work and how efficient they are in protecting that coastline."

During the meeting, JPMorgan Chase announced a $500,000 investment over two years that will integrate affordable housing, neighborhoods and community redevelopment into local climate resilience planning.

Earlier, Christine Morris of the city of Norfolk, Va., said her coastal city is trying to build the maritime community of the future. Their new resiliency code is being hailed as the first one of its kind in the country.

“We’re trying to build the city that will still be there in 50 years,” she said. “That’s our chief goal.”

Morris said her city is being divided into watersheds - instead of neighborhoods - so one area isn’t pitted against each other when it comes to finding solutions to flooding.

The meeting was kicked off by new Florida Chief Resilience Officer Julia Nesheiwat, who had a succinct message for those gathered: you are not alone.

A bill was filed in the state legislature last Friday that would create a Statewide Office of Resiliency.

The proposal was filed by Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-Saint Johns. It's a companion to a bill that has started moving forward in the Senate.

The proposal also calls for creating a Statewide Sea-Level Rise Task Force that would “recommend consensus projections of the anticipated sea-level rise and flooding impacts along this state's coastline.”

The task force would face a Jan. 1, 2021, deadline to submit the projections to the state Environmental Regulation Commission for consideration. If adopted, the projections would serve as the state’s official estimates for sea-level rise and flooding impacts and would be used in developing future state plans and projects.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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