Environmentalists Cautiously Optimistic About New Jax Committee On Sea Level Rise

Feb 11, 2019

Local environmental advocates and policy experts say they’re cautiously optimistic about two recently announced committees designed to address sea level rise and flooding in Jacksonville.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced last month that the city was putting together a committee to address sea level rise. Last week, he and City Council President Aaron Bowman released details on what’s now being called the Storm Resiliency and Infrastructure Development Review Committee, as well an Adaptation Action Area (AAA) Working Group which is state mandated under Florida Statutes Section 163.3177.

Related: As Beach Renourishment Wraps Up, Jax Leaders Look To Address Sea Level Rise

According to the city, the new resiliency and infrastructure committee will “evaluate infrastructure hardening, drainage and flood control, tidal impacts, St. Johns River water levels, wetlands and development in flood plains.”

It came out of a resolution passed by the Jacksonville Waterways Commission in August of 2018 in response to Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, which, among other things, called on the city to “address the impacts of storm events, man-made challenges and other environmental factors contributing to flooding impacts.”

Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa, who will serve as chairman of the new committee, said after the passage of that resolution, Mayor Curry and Council President Bowman got together and decided “it would be best not to have a special City Council committee do this, but schedule a meeting of jurisdictional agency professionals.”

Mousa said in this case, jurisdictional agency professionals refers to federal, state and local officials who are involved with the review, design and approval of stormwater management. “In addition, the Mayor and Council President Bowman wanted to expand the scope a little by looking at infrastructure hardening,” he said.

Bowman said he began speaking with Mayor Curry about the need to address and improve resiliency in Jacksonville shortly after becoming Council President in July of 2018.

“The goal this year is to set a path for a five year plan of what we can do,” Bowman said of the committee. “We’re going to look at hardening and we’re going to look at where are we building.”

The committee is expected to provide Mayor Curry and Council President Bowman with recommendations in June of 2019.

Other than Mousa, the members of the committee are:

  • City Councilwoman Lori Boyer
  • Bill Killingsworth, Planning Director for the City of Jacksonville
  • John Pappas, Public Works Director for the City of Jacksonville
  • Junhong Shi, an engineer from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection
  • Keri Armstrong, an environmental specialist from the Florida DEP
  • Everett Frye, an engineer with the St. Johns River Water Management District
  • Wally Esser, a regulatory specialist with the St. Johns River Water Management District
  • Chief Susan Kaynor, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Mark Evans, a project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Patricia Smithline, a floodplain management specialist from FEMA
  • Marlene Russell, Director of Organizational Effectiveness for the City of Jacksonville

“We’re pleased to see that the mayor is listening,” said the St. Johns Riverkeeper, Lisa Rinaman. “This is a first step towards having an extremely important conversation.”

And while Rinaman said she’s cautiously optimistic about the formation of this committee, she said Jacksonville is “behind the eight-ball.”

“We’ve lost four years worth of opportunity to deal with this issue and to tap into the resources of the 100 Resilient Cities program,” she said. “When you look at cities we’re competing with, they are light years ahead of us.”

Related: Jacksonville Drops Out of Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘100 Resilient Cities’

“The fact that this committee’s just forming now is unfortunate, but we need to focus on working with the agencies that are being gathered as part of this group to make sure we build momentum towards this critical issue,” said Rinaman.

“These discussions have been ongoing for years. This is not something new,” Mousa said in response. “They may not have been as formal as this committee, but jurisdictional agencies and the City of Jacksonville always stay in communication with one another when it comes to improving your drainage system, water quality and water quantity.”

Josh Gellers, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Florida, expressed a sentiment similar to Rinaman’s.

“Any step toward addressing resiliency in the wake of environmental changes and now, the kind of new normal that we find ourselves in, I think is a positive move,” he said.

But he is concerned that both the new committee and the AAA workgroup won’t provide enough opportunities for normal residents to give input - specifically people living in marginalized or vulnerable communities.

“It’s considered a best practice in stakeholder engagement to include all of those stakeholders that are going to be impacted by this,” he said. “And because development and economic opportunity are part of this discussion, I think that there needs to be more representation of the views of average folks who are potentially going to be impacted by infrastructure decisions.”

Mousa said the public is being invited to attend all committee meetings, which will include time for comments from the public.

Rinaman said she’s concerned the committee and workgroup will only scratch the surface of the problem.

“Sea level rise and rising waters in the St. Johns River - that’s a symptom of a bigger problem,” she said. “Yes, we have to look at the symptom and deal with that immediately. But we also need to be having a community wide conversation on how we can look at the overall issue and start talking about cures to sea level rise and what we can do here locally.”

And she believes Jacksonville is way behind on that front as well.

“As we’re going into this next election, at all levels, we need to make sure that we’re focusing on rising waters as well as looking at long term ways we can be part of the cure,” she said.

When Curry first announced the formation of the resiliency and infrastructure committee in January, his critics were quick to call it a political stunt ahead of next month’s election.

Related: WJCT’s 2019 Elections Voters’ Guide

While Gellers can’t say with certainty whether the decision was politically motivated on Curry’s part, he could see this as the mayor extending the proverbial olive branch to people who may be concerned with what Jacksonville went through during Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

“Typically, the environment does not figure in as a really important part of the vote decision that people make,” he said. “So I wouldn’t think that this would be a strong signal that’s going to wind up helping Mayor Curry cruise to reelection because it’s just not that important to most voters.”

Bowman claims politics didn’t play any factor in Mayor Curry’s decision.

Mousa warned that while the committee will certainly aim to make Jacksonville more resilient to flooding, there isn’t much that can be done when it comes to storms like Hurricane Irma.

“I don’t think anything we do is going to prevent another flood like Irma,” he said. “There was, literally, no where for the water to go.”

“All of our drainage systems discharge to the water,” he explained. “And when the water gets so high in the river, the outfall pipe doesn’t work any longer because it’s submerged.”

That leads to the flooding of Jacksonville’s drainage system, and as was the case with Hurricane Irma, the flooding of the city’s streets.

“You’d have to be like New Orleans, where it’s completely dyked all around it with a bunch of huge, huge pump stations,” Mousa said. “But that’s something we’re going to talk about! Maybe we design for something greater than a 100 year storm, that’s why the committee is there.”

Bowman said no potential strategies or solutions are off the table at this point.

“What I’m looking for is having the experts tell me where our resources are best spent and what do we need to do that can make the biggest impact in the future,” he said.

And he’s asking for advice from experts as far away as the Netherlands.

“Of any place that knows how to control water it’s them, and they’ve offered to be a part of it,” he said. “So I don’t know if we’ll fly them in or if we’ll do some video conferences, but they’re out there and they’re more than willing to help.”

The Beaches mayors have also come together to begin addressing sea level rise. Curry appeared with them on January 30 to announce the completion of a beach renourishment project.

The four mayors also began a discussion on how the local governments of Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach and Neptune Beach, which are all within Jacksonville’s city limit, could share information and work together to combat climate change.

At this early stage it’s unclear how the Beaches effort might integrate with the city’s efforts.

According to Mousa, the city committee’s first meeting, which will be held at Jacksonville City Hall in the Mayor’s Conference Room Suite 400 from 1 to 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15, will be strictly organizational. “I want to hear out the committee members and see what they believe the plans ought to be,” he said.

The AAA Working Group, which the city said will focus on improving resilience to coastal flooding and sea level rise, will meet for the first time at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26 in the Ed Ball building, conference room 825 on the 8th floor.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.