Climate change: Across Tampa Bay, environmental organizations mobilize around sea level rise

Fifth in a series.

It's a balmy day under a thick cover of wetland overgrowth just a few hundred feet away from half million dollar homes at Feather Sound on the western shore of Old Tampa Bay. Navigating narrow canals, contractors are carving away a dense, crisscrossing network of decades-old mosquito ditches. In their place, grades will be leveled and waterways opened up to the Bay, in the hopes of reconstructing a teeming tidal wetland that seamlessly transitions from shallow sea grasses to salt barrens and mangroves through to coastal uplands. 

Equal parts art and science, the Feather Sound Tidal Wetland Restoration Project is one example of the reverse engineering efforts underway across Tampa Bay's estuarine shores, where ditches, seawalls and other manmade coastal infrastructure are being dismantled or retrofitted, site by site. Since 1988, nearly 100 projects have been completed across Tampa Bay, restoring nearly 4,000 acres of habitat through efforts ranging from small interventions along urban creeks to large-scale, wetland-wide projects.

These efforts aim both to restore sensitive regional habitats -- gradually recovering after several decades of growth- and pollution-induced decline -- and to clean up Tampa Bay's waters through the filtering effects of native flora and fauna. 

As in other efforts, the Feather Sound project is intensely collaborative. Here, the Southwest Florida Water Management District leads 10 other local, state and national partners, whose contributions span scientific research through to the work of carefully reconstructing habitats. 

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program, or TBEP for short, is one such collaborator. Founded in 1991, the TBEP was chartered to coordinate the restoration of Tampa Bay among different government and institutional partners. At the time, scientists estimated that the Bay's seagrasses -- seen as a key bellwether of the ecosystem's overall health -- covered a fraction of their historical footprint, largely due to the region's accelerated growth after World War II. The organization and its partners set an ambitious goal to restore seagrass acreage in Tampa Bay to 1950 levels. In 2014, they soared past that milestone.  

Today, the TBEP continues to focus on seagrass restoration as part of its overarching mandate to improve the health of Tampa Bay. But now climate change poses a few big challenges to that ongoing work. 

The organization's biggest concern? Sea level rise -- and how that will transform where Tampa Bay's wildlife will be able to live.

Making room for migration

Lindsay Cross, Environmental Science & Policy Manager at TBEP, frames the complex challenges posed by sea level rise by starting with seagrasses, which grow at very shallow depths, and working upland.

"Seagrass requires sunlight to grow. That light must penetrate through the water column to reach the grasses. As water depths increase, the amount of sunlight that reaches the bottom decreases,'' Cross explains. "An extra foot of water may be enough to prevent seagrass growth due to lack of light. For habitats like salt marshes and salt barrens, because elevations around Tampa Bay are so flat, differences of a couple of inches can make a difference at a coastal ecosystem level. Habitats will have to migrate up slope to keep pace with increases in sea levels.'' 

Plants and animals naturally migrate to adapt to changing conditions.

"With plant species: that's a slower process than with animals,'' Cross continues. "Habitat migration is a good thing. Hopefully, habitats in Tampa Bay will be able to migrate into new areas. If not, we will likely see losses of habitats that are important for fish and wildlife.''

Cross points to higher, drier salt barren sites across Tampa Bay where mangrove roots are beginning to appear, suggesting that sea level rise adaptation is already well underway. But a problem arises when and where land isn't available for that migration process. She says that subdivisions, roads and seawalls limit the places where habitats can exist by providing a physical barrier to movement. Pinellas County alone has some 228 miles of sea wall wrapping its coast, according to one Bay Area environmental leader.

That's why TBEP and their partners -- which range from local institutions like the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and the University of South Florida to global firms like Atkins -- are redoubling their efforts to protect vulnerable habitats, according to Cross. To begin to plan for sea level rise, environmental groups are first modeling long-term sea level rise scenarios, paying close attention to how higher waters will change the existing composition of habitat -- and what that means for different types of wildlife. 

With that information, groups can then look for areas that can be protected through conservation easements, outright purchase or long-term restoration projects.

"In our next habitat master plan, we'll specifically ID parcels of land in very vulnerable areas that are critical for acquisition,'' Cross says. 

This mapping process is one of several through which the TBEP is incorporating sea level rise planning into their ongoing work. Cross offers the TBEP's Critical Coastal Habitat Assessment as another example. 

"Two years ago, we went out to five locations to set up a long-term monitoring program that includes very precise elevation data so we know how areas change,'' explains Cross, laying out how environmental scientists can track the environmental impacts of sea level rise. 

"Having a baseline will help us going forward to see how habitats are adapting and how we can best manage and protect those areas,'' she adds.

A hands-on approach to ensuring the health of the Bay

Peter Clark, President of the Tierra Verde-based nonprofit Tampa Bay Watch, is also thinking about the long-term impacts of sea level rise. 

"When we do restoration projects, we have to look at what they'll be like 20, 40, 60 years down the road,'' explains Clark, who is a marine biologist by training and headed up the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council's Agency on Bay Management in the 1980s, when the region began to take serious action to improve the health of Tampa Bay. 

Clark saw an opportunity to get the public engaged in the restoration projects that began in the 1980s, and so he retired from the Agency on Bay Management to establish Tampa Bay Watch. After 23 years, the organization remains committed to protecting the Bay through a range of hands-on scientific and educational programs. 

As an example, one of Tampa Bay Watch's most successful programs gives area students the opportunity to directly participate in coastal restoration projects. Today, 18 middle and high schools have on-campus saltmarsh grass nurseries. From growing the seagrasses in nurseries to planting them on sites, students learn about the restoration process from start to finish, says Clark. 

When it comes to climate change adaptation, Clark points to many of the same environmental challenges raised by Cross, including sea level rise.

"The general public as a whole can't really wrap their minds around this problem,'' Clark concedes. "It's almost too big or too tragic.'' 

Clark maintains that there are things local governments and individuals can do to offset the worst impacts of sea level rise.

"Get involved with local governments and make sure it's part of the discussion,'' he says, because that's where decisions about how we're going to adapt will be made.

Advocating for a broader view of environmental change

Patricia Kemp, Conservation and Leadership Chair at the Tampa Bay Sierra Club and a candidate for the Hillsborough County Commission, shares a similar outlook, but focuses her advocacy efforts on climate change drivers like building and land use patterns, automobile dependency and energy efficiency -- all of which greatly shape greenhouse gas emissions. 

As 83 Degrees touched on in the first story in this climate change series, the extent to which regional sea levels rise depends in large part on the degree to which the global climate changes, at least in part a function of the warming effects of greenhouse gasses. 

Referring to the Florida Department of Transportation's proposal for Tampa Bay Express, she says, "we're talking about a major expansion in roads -- one of the biggest greenhouse gas contributors.''

Through the Sierra Club, Kemp has been a major advocate for the proposed ferry service that would link Downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa, premised as an alternative to car use.

Kemp says that the Sierra Club has also played a key role in advocating for the use of more renewable energy in the region. As one example, she points to the Sierra Club's nationwide Ready for 100 program [link=], which encourages cities to transition to 100 percent clean and renewable energy sources. As part of that initiative, the Suncoast Sierra Club chapter recently received a $50,000 grant to help the City of St. Petersburg work toward its Net Zero energy commitment. St. Petersburg was one of only six cities in the country to receive the grant. 

St. Petersburg's Net Zero ambitions form part of Mayor Rick Kriseman's broader sustainability strategy

Despite these recent steps forward, on the topic of climate change, Kemp says that the Sierra Club offers one of the only spaces in the region "where people are talking about it regularly.'' 

As 83 Degrees wrote in an earlier story, the number of conversations linking resource-efficient transportation, land use planning and climate change adaptation appear to be growing across the public and private sectors. For Kemp as well as for those interviewed in that earlier feature, questions of urban development and design are at heart of how they propose we re-imagine Tampa Bay in response to climate change. And here, given the insights provided by experience and vision, the region's environmental organizations point out that the health of Tampa Bay's coastal ecosystems is closely shaped by how and where we live, work and play.

For readers ready to take environmental action today, Tampa Bay Watch regularly offers volunteer opportunities and hosts special events throughout the year. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program also plans Give a Day for the Bay events, the next of which is scheduled for April 16, 2016, and offers annual mini-grants of up to $5,000 to community groups who want to undertake environmental projects of their own.

Next in our climate change series, 83 Degrees Media will look at how Tampa Bay leaders are working together to protect the region's water supply against the uncertainties raised by a changing climate. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees Media. Follow us on Twitter @83degreesmedia. 

Links to 83 Degrees Media's series of stories on climate change:

Part 1 -- Tampa Bay Area scientists, policymakers plan for rising sea levels

Part 2 -- Preparing for climate change: Pinellas County, local towns take steps to get ready

Part 3 -- Is the global reinsurance industry making Florida more resilient to climate change, hurricanes?

Part 4 -- Tampa Bay real estate boom and climate change: 5 big insights

Part 5 -- Climate change: Across Tampa Bay, environmental organizations mobilize around sea level rise

Part 6 -- Rethinking Tampa Bay's water resources as the climate changes

Part 7 -- Retrofitting Tampa Bay for climate change: From understanding to action
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Read more articles by Zac Taylor.

Zac Taylor, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he studies climate change adaptation in cities, with a focus on real estate and finance. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Leeds in the UK and holds degrees in urban planning from U.C. Berkeley and the London School of Economics. You can reach him on twitter @zacjtaylor.