Florida communities prepare for sea level rise, potential costs to economy

Imagine: $16 billion of local coastal property permanently underwater, including up to 30,000 homes. Property tax rolls slashed by more than $250 million. Tens of thousands of coastal jobs displaced or lost, cutting upwards of $161 billion from the Tampa Bay regional economy. Waterfront parks and infrastructure washed away or made obsolete.

“It’s a statement of the problem,” explains Brady Smith, a planner at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. “One could say the problem is sea level rise. What does that mean, exactly? What are our vulnerabilities?”

“The Cost of Doing Nothing,” a study released earlier this year by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, paints a striking economic portrait of how rising sea levels might transform the area’s economy by 2060 if Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee county communities fail to take more measures to reduce their flood risk. 

The idea behind the report? To equip local communities with a more tangible understanding of what may be at stake as seas rise.

Regional scientists and policymakers project that the mean sea level in the Tampa Bay area could rise by up to three feet over the next four decades. Last year 83 Degrees highlighted the work of several Tampa Bay scientists and planners involved with the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, which produced the first regionally adjusted sea level rise projections for the region in late 2015.

Inspired by the Risky Business project, which studied the potential economic impacts of climate change at the U.S. national and state scale, this study zooms in on the impacts of sea level rise on the region’s property and job bases using a combination of GIS mapping and economic modeling. According to the authors, it’s one of the first studies of its kind. 

One of the study’s main conclusions is that sea level rise probably won’t be catastrophic to the region’s overall economy, at least over the next four decades: “Leaving aside the vast costs of doing nothing over 40 years -- $161 billion of lost Gross Regional Product in 2015 dollars -- in each year the impact is relatively small compared to the size of the region’s economy. Even in the peak year of sea level impacts, 2060, the Gross Regional Product is reduced by less than 3 percent.”

For Pinellas County and the region’s $12 billion annual tourism industry, the picture is less reassuring. The report estimates that Pinellas County might see more than half of the total regional economic losses from sea level rise, despite having only 30 percent of the four-county study area’s population. Up to 17,000 tourism-related jobs would be on land permanently under water by 2060, of which nearly 9,000 are in Pinellas County. A major driver of this decline in economic activity would be the loss of many of the county’s beaches and barrier islands, according to the study.

“It’s not trying to come up with any solutions, it’s just trying to provide another piece of data for folks who have to make decisions about potential future investments in infrastructure and our economy, and what potential sea level rise may mean if no other adaptation actions are taken. It’s a start point,” says Smith. 

State law prompts local governments to take action

A new “Peril of Flood” law that took effect in 2015 requires coastal Florida governments to address sea level rise and future flood risks in new ways. Crafted by Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes of Pinellas County, the state law expands private flood insurance options for Floridians and includes a mandate that waterfront communities incorporate flood risk reduction principles in their comprehensive coastal management plans by 2020.

“The bill is there to deal more broadly with the threats we all live with as citizens in this region,” according to Smith. He points out the importance of considering how sea level rise may worsen different types of flood vulnerabilities Tampa Bay communities already face, “whether they’re coastal flooding events from storms and hurricanes, or whether they’re more of an inland event from rainfall, or there’s some combination which is what we often see here, which was the case this past summer with Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Hermine.” 

Storm surge from Hermine caused water levels to surge between two and three feet in Tampa Bay, while drenching parts of the region with up to 20 inches of rain. That interaction overwhelmed the stormwater infrastructure in several communities, and the City of St. Petersburg alone discharged up to 150 million of partly treated sewage into the Bay. In the aftermath of the storm, city officials pledged to make significant investments to avoid future discharges. And despite progress, sewage overflow during heavy rains remains a concern with another incident reported in July.

Last September, the City of Tampa also approved a plan to make more than $250 million in stormwater system improvements. Smith explains that it will be important for local governments to consider the effects of sea level rise and future flood risk when designing infrastructure that can withstand these types of flood interactions. 

Erin Deady, a Palm Beach area lawyer who works with Florida local governments on sea level rise, says the law has become an important driver for flood risk mitigation statewide. Deady points out that there are a wide range of existing regulations and programs that can promote coastal resilience, like the Florida Building Code and the Coastal Construction Control Line, but they haven’t always been joined up as part of a single planning strategy. Nor have planning approaches considered how sea level rise will change flood risk in the future, instead focusing on single flood events like hurricanes. 

The way the law “links all this together within the coastal element of the comprehensive plan is what’s new and that’s what local governments have not had to do before,” Deady says. 

Beyond improving the planning process, the new law is also designed to save Florida flood insurance policyholders money. The National Flood Insurance Program’s ongoing reform, which includes significant rate increases for policyholders, was a major driver behind the new anti-flooding legislation according to Deady. 

Floridians bought $436.3 billion of flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program in 2015, accounting for 35 percent of all risk on the government insurer’s books. Pinellas County has more NFIP policyholders than 43 states combined, and has been recognized for its efforts to reduce its flood risk. 

In 2016, Pinellas County was awarded the Enterprise GIS Award from Esri for a creating the Flood Map Service Center using open source government data. Through the NFIP’s Community Rating System, which rewards local governments that take flood risk reduction measures, the new map will reduce the amount of premium Pinellas policyholders owe by $5.3 million per year.

“The Community Rating System in and of itself is really important because it’s a points-based system and the better you do within that system, it translates into automatic discounts for constituents for flood insurance premium reductions. From a local elected leadership perspective, it’s one of the few things you can really do that translates into the pocketbooks of your constituents,” explains Deady. Under the new law, communities are encouraged to link together existing measures or identify new projects that can qualify homeowners for flood premium savings.

For coastal local governments, the first step to comply with the new law will be to update the principles in their comprehensive plans. “Local governments are used to taking a hard look at their comprehensive plans every five or seven years,” explains Deady. That “hard look” might entail internal conversations, studies or other reviews of what efforts are already underway locally, before language changes to the plan are submitted for approval by elected officials. In late 2015, St. Petersburg became one of the first cities to revise their plan. 

“Florida’s state and local efforts to be resilient and mitigate the risk of storm surge from hurricanes has helped lessen that risk of sea level rise, but it hasn’t eliminated it.” -- Shawn College, Hillsborough County Planning Commission
The Tampa City Council also rubberstamped updates to the city’s comprehensive plan in February 2017, after a City-County Planning Commission study identified some of the specific ways sea level rise could impact the city by 2040. Upwards of 13,000 acres of land could be inundated in the City of Tampa by that time, about 80 percent of which is publicly owned. Those public lands include Curtis Hixon and Julian B. Layne parks, which have received significant taxpayer investment in recent years as the city hopes to encourage more development along Downtown’s waterfront. 

More than a thousand residential parcels with a taxable value of about $1.2 billion may also be at risk, too. Dozens of road segments and large swathes of the city’s water management infrastructure could also be washed away or otherwise impaired. 

Shawn College, who works on the Hillsborough County Planning Commission’s long range planning team, says that Tampa’s exposure could have been worse were it not for long-standing state efforts to reduce development in hazard-prone coastal areas. 

“Florida’s state and local efforts to be resilient and mitigate the risk of storm surge from hurricanes has helped lessen that risk of sea level rise, but it hasn’t eliminated it,” College says. 

“The population in the coastal area would have been Tampa Riverwalk at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.much higher had we not had the risk of hurricanes and the preventative measures we have taken over the years. The City is definitely looking at what additional measures will be necessary to address sea level rise, including relocation or retrofitting public assets and infrastructure, and regulating future development differently.”

Looking ahead, the City of Tampa will consider changes to land development regulations, capital investment and maintenance plans, and other targeted investments, according to College. Florida local governments have one year after their comprehensive plans are amended to update their regulations, like the building standards private developers rely on to design projects.

During this time, local governments will ask themselves a number of questions about their tolerance for future flood risk, explains Deady. “Are we going to have different design criteria for roads or infrastructure? Are we going to make our pumps and drainage systems meet a new level of capacity?”

Communities face adaptation hurdles

Putting what Deady calls these “nitty-gritty” details into action will be tough for some local governments. Today there is no statewide sea level rise adaptation plan, which means the state hasn’t identified the infrastructure, habitats and other features it intends to prioritize. That can create trouble for communities that rely on state-managed infrastructure, including major roads. Deady points to the low-lying Keys in Monroe County (Key West), which rely almost exclusively on Highway 1 -- a state road -- for access to the mainland. 

It’s not only the lack of a state plan that raises issues for Florida local governments looking to implement sea level rise adaptations, according to Deady. Several regional, state and federal agencies can have a say in the coastal infrastructure permitting process, but those agencies don’t yet share a common standard for planning for future flood risk. Deady says that leaders will need “to take a hard look at permitting processes to make sure we are not inadvertently preventing adaptation strategies from being implemented.”

Funding for local governments to plan projects is also relatively limited to existing state and national grant programs. The state offers small competitive grants for coastal vulnerability reduction planning, although legislation proposed by Jeff Brandes in the 2017 legislative session would have changed that by freeing up to $50 million from the Land Acquisition Trust for local governments to realize projects prioritized in their plans. That bill died in the Banking and Insurance Committee. 

Still, Deady believes the new law will make local governments far more competitive in funding rounds for mitigation projects moving forward, many of which are quickly learning best practices from their peers. 

Brady Smith cites the City of Tampa vulnerability analysis as an “example of regional leadership” that other communities may want to follow going forward. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council also held a series of “Peril of Flood” workshops over the last year, as another. Technical, long-term, and at times slow-moving, a great deal of this work flies under the public’s radar. But in Florida’s battle with sea level rise, Deady sees progress to celebrate, even if we “don’t hear a lot about what these specific agencies are doing.”
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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.