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Florida Legislature passes $100M climate change bill

Passing unanimously with bipartisan support, Senate Bill 1954 will direct $100 million a year to fight flooding and other climate risks in both coastal and inland communities. While most efforts to date have focused on sea level rise and protecting coastal properties, this bill creates a comprehensive and coordinated statewide approach to assessing and preparing for climate impacts.

While some balk at the cost, the price of inaction is far greater. Already, warmer oceans are fueling stronger storms and heavier rainfall events. Just in the last 10 years, Floridians have suffered from 22 extreme weather events, at a cost of $100 billion (which is a thousand times the annual budget of this program). Looking forward, rising seas and warmer temperatures will escalate these events, and have cascading impacts to groundwater levels and drainage capacity, not to mention saltwater intrusion into wetlands and drinking water supplies. With sea level rise accelerating at an exponential rate, the sooner we invest and prepare to adapt to the impacts, the less it will cost our communities in long run. As the old saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The new legislation authorizes the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to create a “Statewide Flooding and Sea Level Rise Resilience Plan.” Local governments and water management districts can propose projects under the plan for funding. Projects can be for resilience planning or physical improvements to adapt critical assets and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have all of the data we need to make decisions on which areas are most at risk and what to do about it. So, to help guide the planning and project awarding process, the DEP will first have to develop a statewide data set, including statewide sea level rise projections, in order to determine the risks to inland and coastal communities. To support that research, the bill establishes an innovation hub at the University of South Florida.

Because all impacts are local, the bill gives room for local governments and other regional entities to partner in developing regional vulnerability assessments and providing technical input. Tribal governments are not explicitly mentioned in the bill, so advocating for tribal inclusion will be important as DEP decides on what criteria to use for project eligibility. Just as global climate models have to be down-scaled for regional application, state plans and assessments will need local and traditional ecological knowledge to ensure that proposed solutions will actually work.

Perhaps the biggest win for the Seminole Tribe is the shift to consider flood risk to inland communities. Historically, the Big Cypress and Brighton reservations have been left out of FEMA flood mapping; however, recent efforts by the tribe and the South Florida Water Management District seek to fill this data gap. A new bill, SB 1550, would help the matter even further. If passed, SB 1550 takes last year’s legislation requiring a sea level impact projection study (SLIP) for state funded projects, and expands the requirement to all “areas at risk due to sea level rise.”

While we may be running out of time to pass SB 1550 in this legislative session, we need to take this broader approach to future flood planning, and soon. Large-scale infrastructure investments (like updating water management systems) are not made every day, but rather every few decades. If we continue to fail to consider future climate impacts on these investments today, it will be very costly, in both lives and dollars, to repair the oversight tomorrow.

But today, we celebrate, and prepare to get to work. The state’s $100 million a year allocation won’t be enough to fix all our problems, but it certainly is the kind of commitment we need to take a holistic and inclusive look at the challenges ahead. As always, the tribe’s Heritage and Environmental Resources Office (HERO) works closely with regional and state agencies to ensure the tribe’s interests are represented and met. As the plan and project list are created, the proof of that commitment will be in the pudding.

Jill Horwitz is the Seminole Tribe’s climate resiliency officer.

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