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Florida Unveils New Statewide Sea Rise Mapping Tool

Emily Michot
Miami Herald

The tool is part of a new law taking effect July 1 that calls for projects using state money to conduct studies on damage and costs tied to sea rise. Critics say the law falls short by not requiring fixes.

Florida environmental regulators say they are creating the state’s first uniform sea rise level projections as part of a new law to better prepare coastal projects paid for with state money.

A draft version of the new mapping tool was unveiled Tuesday as part of a workshop on rules to implement the law.

The tool incorporates projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, already widely used in South Florida, and expands them all along Florida’s oceanfront coast. It does not include rivers, canals or many bays already hit by tidal flooding.

“This will be the first time that we get to establish a uniform signal across the state of what sea level rise projections should be,” said Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valentstein. “It's really a strong state signal that we're taking the impacts of climate change seriously.”

State officials have been working since August with Jacksonville-based Taylor Engineering to have the tool ready by July 1, when the law is scheduled to take effect.

But critics say the tool and the law, first introduced by former state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, lacks the potency to address building along vulnerable coasts that Rodriguez originally proposed.

The final version says projects that use state money need to conduct a sea rise study to calculate future damage and costs from flooding. The study must also include solutions to lessen threats and damage costs. But it makes the remedies optional, and doesn’t require them in the final project.

“When former Sen. Rodriguez introduced the bill originally it did have language to compel enforcement,” said Sierra Club representative Diana Umpierre. “The intent was to find a mechanism not only to determine the effects that sea level rise would have on state-funded projects, but actually compel whoever is the decision-maker to actually do something.”

The law, according to FDEP’s presentation Tuesday, now leaves implementing findings to the “discretion” of those building the projects.

The proposed rules also only require the study by the time construction starts, not when a design is finalized. Critics say that undermines the intent of the law.

With a deadline before designs are complete, “they can see likely scenarios and still have an opportunity to be able to adjust design, construction and permitting in advance,” Elizabeth Fata Carpenter, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center, said during Tuesday’s briefing.

With so much of the state facing increasing damage from sea rise driven by climate change, Umpierre said the state needs to take a more forceful position on coastal development. She added that a Jan. 26 deadline to submit public comment on the draft rules for implementing the law is too short.

“I have real concerns about this being only an educational awareness tool,” Umpierre said. “Hell, how much more education and awareness do we need that sea level rise is real?”

The state plans to have a second public workshop in February.
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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.