Southern Leadership on Sea Level Rise

This post is the third in a five part blog series on sea level rise, being developed concurrent with the new IPCC climate report, Florida Atlantic University’s Sea Level Rise Summit in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Oct. 16 – 17, and the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on Oct. 29. You can read the other posts here.

In the previous posts, we’ve established that the seas are rising due to climate change and that the coastal communities in the Southeast may be greatly impacted. While the picture looks gloomy sometimes,  it is important to know that there are things that we can do to mitigate the worst impacts. Some local governments and regional planning organizations are showing notable leadership in the realm of sea level rise planning, a feat that coastal communities throughout the region would do well to study and build upon their examples. In this post, we will look at a few of those examples, drawing on programs underway in North Carolina and Florida, representing both major metropolitan areas as well as moderate-sized traditional townships.

Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact LogoSoutheast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact

The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact is the crown jewel of climate planning in our region. Its scope is remarkable, given that it is a collaborative project of the four southeastern-most counties in the state, which represent 5.6 million residents. The compact originated by the realization that each of the four counties could more effectively deal with sea level rise and other climate change impacts by pooling resources and working together. Together, they created task forces to gain an understanding of locally relevant climate impacts and ways to address them. In order to create a basis for sea level rise planning, they partnered with local and national oceanic experts, such as local universities, research institutions, and federal agencies such as Army Corps of Engineers, to create a Unified Projection of Sea Level Rise to use for planning purposes by performing a literature review and incorporating input from local stakeholders.

After understanding the parameters for sea level rise, another task force was able to perform a vulnerability analysis to see which assets were at risk of flooding and at what amount of sea level rise. The task force identified key categories of assets for which to gauge their vulnerability, which included ports, airports, power plants, railroads, water distribution, treatment, and drainage infrastructure, landfills, hospitals, emergency shelters, schools, evacuation routes, and marinas. They then used elevation data to see which facilities would be flooded at what amount of sea level rise. Having this basic knowledge of what assets are vulnerable is key to informed risk management planning.

Additionally, the Compact investigated the profile of its greenhouse gas emissions and reported them in a greenhouse gas emissions inventory. The purpose of the inventory is to understand where emissions come from, so that opportunities for reduction can be identified and to serve as a baseline against which future reductions can be measured.

The information gleaned from these reports was applied to create a regional climate action plan that contains 110 action items, spanning seven focus areas including Sustainable Communities and Transportation Planning, Water Supply, Management and Infrastructure, Natural Systems, Agriculture, Energy and Fuel, Risk Reduction and Emergency Management, and Outreach and Public Policy.

You can read more about the compact here.

Regional Community Institute, Northeast Florida Regional Planning Council

RCI LogoA similar effort has been undertaken in Northeast Florida, where the Regional Community Institute of Northeast Florida has created a regional sea level rise resilience guidance plan. Tasked with making recommendations for policy on sea level rise for the seven-county region of northeast Florida, including the Jacksonville metro area, the course of action for the RCI sea level rise committee was to: 1) determine if the region is vulnerable to sea level rise, 2) if so, to provide information on the rate of rise, and 3) make policy recommendations based on these findings.

The committee determined that, indeed, the region is vulnerable to sea level rise. Similarly to south Florida, the next step was to carry out a vulnerability assessment to help understand which assets would be vulnerable at certain benchmark levels of rise. In order to identify which types of assets to analyze, the cities and counties submitted their priorities. Some of the categories of assets examined included economic drivers such as major employers, historic districts and national monuments, and transportation infrastructure including roads, navigable waterways, ports, airports, railroads, ferries, and more. Just last month, RCI released its regional action plan and its list of policy recommendations.

But not everyone taking part in this kind of planning is a major metropolitan area…

SWFRPC LogoSouthwest Florida Regional Planning Council and The City of Punta Gorda

The Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, representing the seven southwestern-most counties in Florida is carrying out an ambitious climate change planning process spanning the region as well as on the city- and county-scale. The regional climate action planning work was done under the National Estuary Program, in which the SWFRPC was able to convene a partnership of citizens, elected officials, resource managers and commercial and recreational resource users to address regional resource management concerns. As in the prior mentioned regional planning, this one also contained a regional vulnerability assessment which helped to identify where adaptation management is needed most.

Of particular note within this program is the work done in the City of Punta Gorda. Punta Gorda is a city of fewer than 17,000 citizens, but it’s a regional leader when it comes to climate change planning. With the help of the regional planning council, the City adopted a climate action plan that is helping it to maintain prosperity in the face of rising seas. The action plan has helped inform the City’s comprehensive plan, which has adopted recommendations specifically on sea level rise, and has resulted in work such as improvement of the drainage system, the relocation of a public works facility away from a flood-prone area, and adoption of a Transfer of Development Rights program to protect areas of natural history and cultural significance. Through a series of meetings with citizens and allowing the citizens to determine the priorities that the climate action plan should address, a finalized set of 104 recommended actions and 34 unacceptable actions were agreed upon and are now informing local policy.

You can read more about the City’s climate planning work in this summary document and you can read the adopted climate plan here.

New Bern and Wilmington, North Carolina

The City of New Bern has about 30,000 residents and Wilmington has just over 200,000, but in spite of the state political climate’s hostility to forward-thinking planning, these coastal cities have formulated innovative plans to address sea level rise. The focus of both of these efforts was on water management, with New Bern’s plan being more focused on using green infrastructure such as open space and vegetated areas for storm water management and surface water quality and Wilmington’s plan being more focused on freshwater and wastewater management. Similar to the prior mentioned sea level rise planning initiatives, these two efforts also began with assessing the local vulnerability to sea level rise. With this understanding in hand, they then created a menu of tool options to address sea level rise vulnerability, that are now being used by city staff to guide planning, engineering, and public works decisions. These programs are pilot programs, funded in part through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that can and hopefully will be used as models for replicating and building upon in other communities in our region.

Common threads and replicability

Looking at these various efforts in a single view offer an interesting opportunity to figure out what commonalities they share, the understanding out, which may provide a good basis for launching new sea level rise planning initiatives.

What stands out perhaps the most to me is the similarity of the process of performing vulnerability assessments for local assets, which share a common relatively simple narrative of 1) defining the scenarios of how much sea levels may rise locally, 2) determining to what extent local assets are made vulnerable by that amount of sea level rise, and 3) prioritizing which assets need work to  maintain their value.

Another striking commonality between the different initiatives is their stakeholder inclusiveness. They all seem to recognize the value of having many stakeholders at the table to collaboratively create the plan and thereby have a broad sense of community ownership over the plan and thus boost the likelihood of implementation being realized.

Tune in to our final two posts in this blog series to learn what businesses are doing about rising sea levels and how individuals can do their part to take action on rising seas.


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