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Building a Resilient Florida to Blunt Climate Change

While climate change will continue to exacerbate red tides, harmful algal blooms and hurricanes, the state legislature can help blunt the worst effects

Weedon Island State Park, Florida
Clouds reflected over the ocean near a beautiful mangrove coast © Olivia Breazeale

For the past several weeks, a red tide has lurked off Florida’s southwest coast, sickening birds and triggering fish kills. The late-season red tide is not unusual, but it is outside of the time of year red tides typically appear. Late-blooming Karenia brevis, the organism responsible for red tides, could become the new norm, as climate change is expected to increase favorable conditions for harmful algal blooms (HABs), stronger hurricanes and speed up sea-level rise.

While harmful algal blooms and hurricanes are normal, naturally-occurring events, they are worsened and made more frequent by climate change, and their devastating economic, human health and environmental impacts are a stark reminder that shoring up Florida’s resilience is a top priority.

Recognizing that immediate action is needed to protect Floridians from climate change, Governor DeSantis took the first step last month by proposing $1 billion for “Resilient Florida,” a program to award funds to local municipalities for projects that help their communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.

These funds are critically important to strengthening coastal resilience and protecting green infrastructure. Mangroves, for example, are natural shock absorbers, protecting communities from wave and flood damage wrought by storms and sea-level rise. Mangrove protections help communities worldwide avoid property damage estimated at $270 billion. In Florida, mangroves reduced the blow of Hurricane Irma that roared ashore in 2017 by averting an estimated $1.5 billion in storm damage in communities surrounded by healthy mangroves. They also filter contaminants, improve water quality and provide nursery habitat for commercially and recreationally important fishes.

Florida’s state legislature now must act to turn the Governor’s commitment into reality during its upcoming session by approving the necessary funds for a Resilient Florida program. Funding the program is not the only immediate need, however. To help ensure this program is impactful—by helping local municipalities avoid the worst impacts of climate change—Ocean Conservancy urges the legislature to also:

  • Build on previous efforts to improve Florida’s water quality. A small change to existing state law is needed to make Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs)—a set of legally enforceable solutions to improve water quality—more effective. This change would require state and local projects to reduce the number of pollutants necessary to help communities meet water quality standards, particularly for nitrogen and phosphorous. These two nutrients, entering waterways from leaking septic tanks or as farm and lawn runoff, combine with warming waters to fuel HABs.
  • Establish a permanent Office of Resilience led by a statewide Chief Resilience Officer. The Governor has made it clear through his pledge of $1 billion that helping Florida adapt to a changing ocean and climate is of paramount importance. However, a statewide strategy is necessary for meeting Florida’s resilience challenges head-on. Promoting resilience in community planning and growth is a challenge across jurisdictions involving comprehensive planning, growth, land development, disaster preparedness and economic development. A Chief Resilience Officer would be responsible for facilitating efforts among various local and state institutions to create a seamless, coordinated strategy that optimizes taxpayer resources to protect Florida. To ensure these decisions are connected to a statewide plan for resilience, the Legislature should also house Community Planning and Growth responsibilities with the Department of Environmental Protection or a new Office of Resilience.
  • Provide recurring and sustained funding for HAB and Blue-Green Algae Task Forces. Backed by the Governor and with funding provided by the legislature in 2019, the HAB and Blue-Green Algae Task Forces have met regularly to identify critical interventions for red tide and blue-green algae HABs. The legislature should continue to prioritize the task forces as frontline investments in community resilience and provide funding on a recurring and sustained basis. The task forces are advancing solutions and improving the delivery of information that, like hurricane forecasts, enable residents and businesses to plan for and avoid the worst impacts.

While climate change will continue to exacerbate red tides, harmful algal blooms and hurricanes, the state legislature can help blunt the worst effects. We urge legislators to approve the Governor’s $1 billion for a Resilient Florida program, establish an Office of Resilience, improve the effectiveness of water quality improvement plans and provide critical, ongoing operational funding for the HAB and Blue-Green Algae Task Forces.

Ocean Conservancy urges you to reach out to your state legislators to tell them how critically important these issues are to you. If you are a Florida resident, now is the time for Tallahassee to make a big difference for Florida’s coastal and marine environment. If you don’t live in Florida, please consider taking another action for our ocean.

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