A bill sponsored by state Rep. Cyndi Stevenson (R-St. Augustine) that would establish a statewide Office of Resiliency along with a statewide Sea Level Rise Task Force unanimously passed a House Subcommittee Tuesday afternoon.
Stevenson’s district includes much of St. Johns County, stretching across Florida’s east coast from Palm Valley to St. Augustine Beach.
The legislation would direct the Chief Resilience Officer to lead a statewide taskforce, establishing a baseline of anticipated sea level rise and flooding impacts along Florida’s 1,350 miles of coastline.
She told the subcommittee the projects would “serve as the state's official estimate of sea level rise to be used by state agencies.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Dr. Julia Nesheiwat as Chief Resilience Officer last August. Under Stevenson’s proposal, Nesheiwat would serve as the chair for the nine-person Sea Level Rise Task Force.
The projections would be a guideline for future projects and ways to combat rising sea levels.
At the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing, a couple of the representatives questioned what the term “consensus” would mean in the language of the bill.
“Hopefully building consensus means people in the majority and minorities’ valid points are properly considered with good process,” Stevenson said. “I think there is a lot of good science out there. Sometimes it'll be a question of integration. And in some areas, the estimates may not be as accurate because we don't have as much underlying data.”
Rep. Rick Roth (R-Palm Beach Gardens) asked if the Office of Resiliency would only examine issues regarding sea level rise and not other potential problems.
“When Dr. Nesheiwat was talking about resilience, she talked about resilience in terms of the broader issues,” Stevenson responded. “The ability to adapt to unexpected change, you know, respond to, adapt and recover. I think it also… we really see our exposure in large storm events. So there's a lot of work that we're already doing in [Department of Emergency Management] and those kind of things. But there is undoubtedly public policy decisions to be considered.”
The Department of Environmental Protection’s Chief Science Officer would serve as the vice-chair. The remaining seven members would be appointed by the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and five state agencies.
The task force would submit its recommendations and supporting information to the Environmental Regulation Commission by the beginning of 2021. If accepted, the projections would become the state’s official estimates on sea level rise, which would then be used for future projects and programs to combat it.
In 2023, the task force would dissolve, but the Resiliency Office would remain intact.
A budget of $500,000 would be appropriated in nonrecurring funds from the General Revenue Fund to the DEP to pay for services needed to find the projections and for the administrative expenses of the task force.
Lena Juárez spoke during the testimonial period during the hearing for the bill on behalf of St. Augustine to show the city’s support for the bill.
“The city has been impacted greatly, not just by Hurricane Matthew, which I think was a category 3 storm three-years-ago, but as the oldest city in North America at 455-years-old,” Juárez said. “The infrastructure is really needing some larger discussion or the city is wanting to have some larger discussion on how to improve, not just their infrastructure, but how the state is addressing resiliency throughout our state of Florida.”
Suarez also said the city plans on hiring two resiliency officers.
Rep. Delores Hogan Johnson (D-Fort Pierce), who sits on the subcommittee, said the passage of this bill was critical for the health of the state.
“It's about time that we all wake up,” Hogan Johnson said. “We live in a beautiful, fragile state. And we must continue to bring forth these kinds of bills and discussions to help our state.”
With the unanimous approval by the subcommittee, the bill will now be heard by the full committee where it can move along or be rejected.