An official from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection told a state House subcommittee Wednesday that Florida is working to develop a statewide strategy to prepare for the impacts of climate change.
“We've heard it said often that Florida is ground zero for sea level rise,” Alex Reed, Director of Water Resource Management at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday.
“Fortunately, we are also blessed with some phenomenal natural resources,” she went on to say. “We have our beautiful sandy beaches. We have our rich estuarine shorelines. We have coral reefs, and we have our mangrove forests. And they all function as the state's first line of defense, protecting upland development, critical infrastructure, critical wildlife habitat, and the recreational beaches that drive the state's economy.”
But those natural defenses aren’t enough to protect the state and all of its assets from the future impacts of climate change, which is why Reed said the state has made adaptation a priority.
She pointed to the environmental executive order that Repubican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed within 48 hours of his inauguration.
“A fundamental focus of this executive order was coastal resilience, and the governor directed DEP to establish the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection and the governor also appointed Dr. Julia Nesheiwat as the state's first chief resilience officer,” Reed said. “The department is proud to be partnering with Dr. Nesheiwat to continue developing the statewide strategy for addressing the economic, physical, and environmental impacts of climate change. And as we move down this path, we hope that Florida becomes the national leader for resilience.”
The Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection (RCP) is leading the DEP’s efforts to address the challenges posed by climate change. It manages more than 4.5 million acres of submerged lands and coastal uplands, partners with local governments with jurisdiction over 825 miles of shoreline, and helps coordinate and plan various resource protection, beach management, and ecosystem restoration projects.
Reed said the Resilient Coastlines Program is just one example of ongoing state efforts to improve resiliency in the face of climate change and sea level rise.
The program started back in 2017 to help facilitate the sharing of information and ideas, to give adaptation planning and technical assistance to local communities, and to provide a funding source to help communities with local projects.
“Since then, through appropriations from the legislature and the governor's office, we have used more than $5 million to assist community projects - over 60 projects across the state,” Reed said.
The DEP has also developed an adaptation planning guidebook as a resource for communities interested in vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning.
“The guidebook is a combination of more than five years of research and partnership with other state agencies and outlines steps and Best Management Practices for local governments to reduce risk and mitigate for potential loss of upland development and critical infrastructure,” said Reed.
Coconut Creek Rep. Kristin Diane Jacobs, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said she’s been thrilled to see the direction the state is heading in.
“I don't know of any other agency in the state that has both climate change and resiliency in their mission statement,” she said. “I just find it really refreshing and [I’m] super excited with the direction that the governor has taken to bolster this department, both the resiliency coastlines program [and] bringing on Dr. Nesheiwat, which is super great to have a chief resiliency officer for the first time in the state.”
Indialantic Republican Rep. Thad Altman agreed.
“It's really a landmark point in time for Florida because for the first time, there's an acknowledgement that climate change is happening and sea level rise is a reality,” he said.
But he’s worried that building up resilience won’t be enough to protect Florida from climate change.
“Are we developing a set of strategies to fight climate change and the negative impacts from a policy point of view, from carbon emissions and other types of emissions that are creating this phenomenon?” Altman asked.
Reed said she’s still new to this role, so she doesn’t know the answer to that question. But she did say she would follow up with her colleagues in the Division of Air Resource Management.
“If we acknowledge this is happening, and we're making efforts to mitigate for it, it would make sense... that we develop policies to try to prevent it, or keep it from being worse than what it is. That would be, I think, integral to what we're doing,” said Altman.