Florida bill acknowledging climate-change realities advances to Senate floor

By John Haughey
The Center Square
February 7, 2020

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday signed off on a bill that will create the Florida Office of Resiliency and a nine-member task force to develop strategies to address rising sea levels fostered by climate change.

Perhaps the most notable element of Senate Bill 7016, crafted by the Senate Infrastructure & Security Committee, is the repeated use of the words “climate change” in the bill’s analysis – words banned from being written, uttered or whispered by state officials during Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s eight-year tenure.

SB 7016, endorsed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as part of his effort to replace ideology with science in state environmental policy, has secured three unanimous panel endorsements and now moves onto the Senate floor for a chamber vote.

Its House companion, House Bill 1073, co-filed by Reps. Cyndi Stevenson, R-St. Augustine, and Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, faces a hearing in the House State Affairs Committee before presentation onto the House floor.

The measures create the Office of Resiliency within the Governor’s Office. The new office already has a leader, Julie Nesheiwat, who DeSantis named Florida’s first-ever Chief Resilience Officer in August.

The bills also require agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, the Fish & Wildlife Commission and the state’s five water management districts, to incorporate climate change resiliency into planning reviews.

Both bills allocate $500,000 to create the nine-member Sea-Level Rise Task Force – led by Nesheiwat – that would convene no later than Oct 1 and have until Jan. 1, 2021, to provide the state’s Environmental Regulation Commission with baseline projections on anticipated sea-level rise and flooding impacts along Florida’s 1,350-mile coastline.

The $500,000 primarily would be allocated to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to fund the task force study with recommendations implemented under the Coastal Construction Control Line and Beach Management Funding Assistance programs.

According to the DEP, 35 coastal counties that contain about 76 percent of Florida’s population are experiencing a range of issues, such as flooding and saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers.

SB 7016’s analysis cites estimates that Florida could lose more than $300 billion in property value to rising sea levels by 2100.

“Florida’s coastal communities are experiencing high-tide flooding events, sometimes referred to as ‘sunny day’ or ‘nuisance’ flooding, with increasing frequency because sea-level rise increases the height of high tides,” the bill’s analysis states. “There are three primary ways that climate change influences coastal flooding: sea-level rise, storm surge intensity, and rainfall intensity and frequency.”

Intensifying hurricanes and rising sea levels threaten to devalue the billions the state is investing in water quality infrastructure, according to SB 7016’s analysis.

“Storm surge intensity and the intensity and precipitation rates of hurricanes are generally projected to increase, and studies suggest the overall extent of destruction from hurricanes is also rising,” the analysis states. “Higher sea levels will cause storm surges to travel farther inland and impact more properties than in the past. Stronger storms and sea-level rise are likely to lead to increased coastal erosion.”

The task force’s findings will be helpful, said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, adding “it’s hard to adjust public policy to what we might see” in coming years without real data from real scientific studies.