Florida Weekly

November 14, 2017

When it comes to our receding beaches, the struggle is real

By:  Nanci Theoret


ONE MORE MAJOR STORM AND DRAKE BLISS’S Manasota Key home likely will be a little closer to the beach. Since purchasing the property 12 years ago, Mr. Bliss has watched the Gulf of Mexico claim most of the 30- to 40-foot-wide swath of beach and a man-made sand dune he estimates was once 20 feet tall. “When I first bought the property there was a large beach there,” said the Cape Coral Realtor. “A half-mile or more has just disappeared in the last three years. All that’s left is rip-rap and rocks where the dune used to be. Every major storm started taking swipes at it.”

And that was before Hurricane Irma took out a 200-foot section of Manasota Beach Road.

Mr. Bliss’s home, a vacation rental built in 2011, is safe. It’s on the eastern side of the island’s major roadway and built to stringent hurricane codes. The owners of condos and a single-family home right on the beach haven’t been so lucky. After Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Hermine dealt a one-two punch last summer, their homes were deemed uninhabitable with cracked foundations and waves lapping at the back door.

 “It was ground zero,” Mr. Bliss said. “Storms come in, breach the seawall and trash the place. My house is designed to take the flood. It’s new construction. But the 1950s homes are way below the flood zone and people can’t afford flood insurance.”


Along Southwest Florida’s beaches, erosion is one of the many sides of climate change caused by growth and the “hardening” of the coast — seawalls, rip-rap and other structures designed to protect multi-million dollar manses, waterfront businesses and municipal recreational facilities. Scientists say climate change will lead locally to increased hurricane events, extended droughts and shorter but more intense rainy seasons and the introduction of tropical diseases to livestock and humans.

Those flooding rains in August and Irma in September were just a harbinger of what’s to come.

Southwest Florida and Florida, for that matter, are among the most susceptible areas in the world threatened by rising seas. The Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council has been tackling climate change for two decades, studying the area’s vulnerability and how policy changes can reduce the acceleration of the inevitable.

Back in 2009, when Jim Beever, a geobiologist and the council’s principal planner, began assessing the impact of climate change, the general consensus estimated a 1.2-degree temperature increase and a 12- to 18-inch rise in sea level by 2100.

“The acceleration to higher temperatures seems to be coming on faster than previously thought,” he said. “It looks like we’ll get there sooner, around 2080. It’s getting hotter sooner. The rate of sea level rise for our region has been about the thickness of a Velveeta cheese slice, each year. It doesn’t seem like much, but stack it up and you get a Velveeta box before long.”


Internationally, the just-released and most comprehensive study of climate change ever, the Climate Science Special Report, outlines in over 600 pages a 1.8 degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperature since 1902 and a sea level rise of 7 to 8 inches during the past 117 years with a 3-inch increase since 1993. It also attributes these changes to human activities.


Just as growth is inevitable for Southwest Florida, so too, is a changing climate which will unleash a range of complications and challenges. While it’s impossible to stop this natural process, it can be slowed down through smarter planning, better building codes and land development, an emphasis on green building, reduced vehicular emissions and a host of other measures.

“It’s important to make it clear you cannot stop this,” Mr. Beever said. “But we can adapt. We can slow the acceleration. The only thing humans can affect is manmade.”

Left to run its course, Mother Nature would shift barrier islands and deal up beach-claiming storms, redepositing them elsewhere. But now, cities and counties are shelling out millions of dollars to keep beaches in the same place, reactively re-sanding them to stay on top of storm surge and armoring the shoreline with seawalls, which impact turtle nesting and pose other adverse environmental consequences.

Collier County renourished its shoreline to the tune of $3.9 million in 2016. Charlotte County is facing a potential $30 million project to save its shoreline, part of which could include reclaiming Manasota’s disappearing beaches and creating a natural underwater barrier to tame waves. Storms have scraped away sand, leaving four acres of bare, hard limestone.

Nearly 44 miles of Southwest Florida’s beaches are critically eroded, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Erosion is considered critical if there’s a threat to or a loss of upland development, recreation, wildlife habitat and important cultural resources.

Threatened beaches remain on the list despite renourishment projects to aid the state in acquiring future federal funding for larger scale projects. More than 14 miles of Collier’s beach fall in the category. In Lee County, 22.4 miles of its 47 miles of coastline is considered critically eroded and those portions of former beachfront along Manasota Key toward Charlotte’s northern boundary are among the county’s 6.5 miles of shoreline rated as critically eroded.

Eight critically eroded areas in Palm Beach County span 33.6 miles, with a 1.5-mile section from Tequesta and Jupiter Inlet Colony threatening private developments and recreational facilities at Coral Cove Park.

“The rate between renourishing and renourishing again is getting shorter and shorter,” Mr. Beever observed. “We’ve spoken up in meetings but engineers, renourishers and some politicians deal with facts not approached by science.”

The regional planning council cites three reasons why communities have failed to address climate change: “uncertainty over or denial of climate change and its implications; failures to include the true economic, social, and environmental costs of present policies that encourage, allow and subsidize such risky development; and legal tenets of private property rights.”

On the flip side are the naysayers who believe the environment friendly agendas of liberal state and national government are crying wolf. During the administrations of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency generously doled out grants to fund climate change vulnerability studies and money for resiliency implementation.

“At one time the federal government was much more interested in this,” Mr. Beever said. “But then we changed governors and we changed presidents. There were mandates and programs encouraging planning and funding that planning but they went away.”

Climate change’s impact on Southwest Florida won’t be the stuff of an apocalyptic movie. No coastal cities underwater or high-rise towers swept into the ocean (although it might make it easier for some to step out their door and fish, Mr. Beever quipped).

“The issue of doom is overdone on this,” he said. “We want to be able to live in a way that makes sense.”

According to the planning council’s research, climate change impacts of sealevel rise are already evident throughout the region — salt marshes have moved inland about the length of a football field since the 1950s, coastal flooding has increased and storm surge is more pronounced during tropical storms. And it’s not just coastal communities that will incur the complications of climate change.

“Inland, Labelle is experiencing major water-quality issues,” Mr. Beever said. “Its water supply, increased droughts and shifts of temperatures will affect agriculture and the types of crops that will grow. We anticipate more tropical products and also increased tropical diseases in cattle. Zika, dengue fever and other tropical diseases are showing up in small amounts in all communities of Southwest Florida.”

Mr. Beever sees evidence some local cities and counties are taking climate change seriously. “Municipalities are more a leader on this than the state,” he said. “One reason is mayors have to get things done. They can’t just sit around and talk philosophy.”

He’s completed 15 climate control resiliency studies, having just wrapped up one for Cape Coral.

The regional planning council has presented to Charlotte County and completed the Lee County Resiliency Plan in 2010. The latter included more than 70 suggestions for educating the public, reducing fleet emissions, incorporating climate control measures in building and land codes, and protecting and enhancing key environmental areas. In November 2010 the county also lauded its involvement as one of the eight inaugural adaptation communities in the country to participate in the Climate Resilient Communities program.

Yet despite all the fanfare, the county has yet to implement a single recommendation or take steps toward adopting a climate resiliency plan and reducing its vulnerability, which were also outlined in its CompleteLee sustainability plan. Jonathan Romine, a principal for EnSite, a Fort Myers design firm specializing in sustainable planning, civil engineering, urban design and landscape architect, worked on the plan, which took three years to develop. He reads aloud the recommended actions outlined in the document.

“Nope, that didn’t get done,” he said. “No, that one didn’t happen either. They didn’t do that … We prioritized goals, conducted public workshops on climate adaptation and the steps they could do to adapt.”

There was also funding available to help with implementation, Mr. Romine said.

“Coastal communities need to be doing things to address climate change,” he said. “One thing the county was supposed to do as a priority was to improve facilities so they would be better prepared for a natural disaster. There were things they could have been doing that would have better prepared the community for Irma. Imagine if it had landed in Estero, Cape Coral or Fort Myers.

“Charley wasn’t the hurricane. It was just an example.”

Collier County has been taking steps to address climate change. Before breaking for summer recess, commissioners learned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had approved a $1 million grant for Florida Gulf Coast University

Professor Michael Savarese and his colleagues from the University of Florida to map out and analyze sea-level rise risks throughout the county. “It’s a way of providing Collier County, its municipalities and managers of urban and natural resources an understanding of what our region might look like in the future as sea level rise continues and as storms continue,” Mr. Savarese told the board.

Funded by BP monies under the RESTORE Act following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the three-year web-based project will create maps, simulations and animations illustrating and predicting the impact of sea level rise in 2030, 2060 and 2100 using a variety of magnitudes and storm scenarios. “It provides a suite of possibilities for what the future might hold for us,” said Dr. Savarese. “It’s $1 million in new science available to us. It requires the county and its municipalities to have some kind of planning effort … that moves in concert with this project.”

The Naples-Based Southwest Florida Nature Conservancy is also actively involved in climate change, conducting a systematic internal assessment to identify existing gaps in Southwest Florida and use its expertise in policy, science and education to develop solutions, said President and CEO Robert Moher.

“We have core expertise in critical ecological infrastructure, notably mangrove forests that are essential bulwarks against sea level rise.”

In October, a summit on sea rise organized by Naples City Councilwoman Linda Penniman and Commission Chairwoman Penny Taylor attracted 200 and included presentations by government officials from Miami-Dade County. The South Florida county, along with Palm Beach and Broward counties, formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in 2010 to coordinate mitigation and adaptation activities across county lines.

Its ninth annual climate leadership summit in December will focus on engaging businesses and the community in critical decisions on adaptation, climate and energy solutions, and resilience.

Of the three counties, Palm Beach has the highest elevation, at about 15 feet. Miami-Dade and Broward average six feet. The Breakers rises 13 feet above sea level; the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts towers at 33 feet.

Punta Gorda is well ahead of the climate change curve, its city council unanimously approving the incorporation of the Punta Gorda Adaptation Plan into its comprehensive plan in 2009. The city was able to piggyback onto the regional planning council’s comprehensive vulnerability assessment of Charlotte Harbor through the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, which targeted Punta Gorda as among the first regional cities likely to suffer negative effects of climate change. It identified 246 management adaptations that would help the entire Southwest Florida region and also noted the loss of mangrove forests along the harbor, the degradation of water quality and geomorphic changes to barrier islands.

“Jim was looking for a partner for his estuary work and came to us,” said Joan LeBeau, Punta Gorda’s interim urban manager, who was the city’s chief planner at the time. “We thought it was a great idea and an important planning tool. As a small city, this wasn’t something we could do on our own. They planned the majority of the work. It makes sense if you’re near water; you have to plan for issues.”

Critical to the city’s success, much as its unprecedented recovery from Hurricane Charley, was community and business involvement — a commitment from all stakeholders.

From the beginning of its climate change discussions the city involved the public who knew all too well the power of the sea and hurricanes. About 100 people attended the first of a three-day workshop.

“A lot of times you start talking climate stuff and people start politicizing,” Ms. LeBeau said. “You have to introduce and explain the science first and start with baby steps to help move and get people realizing this is coming. Having buy-in made a world of difference. The plan came to council with the backing of the community.”

The city’s final adaptation plan identified several strategies for addressing climate change at little to no cost. The city has implemented all but two or three. Components of the document call for building infrastructure on higher ground, restoring oyster bars and mangrove fringes to add structural integrity to weakened shorelines, and trumps federal and state building codes to push foundations an additional .25 inches higher.

“There are both positive and negative impacts,” Ms. LeBeau said. “Updating the building codes and raising the base flood elevation is more costly to developers who have to add another quarter of an inch but in the long run it buys you time.”

She points to Tangier Island, Virginia, as a dramatic example of sea level rise. Since 1850, the island’s landmass has diminished 67 percent, cemeteries are underwater and moderate sea-level rise models project the town will likely be abandoned in the next 50 years.

Ms. LeBeau’s department also is working with the Southwest Florida Conservancy to determine the feasibility of creating a living shoreline on the northwestern side of the city and hopes to present the project to council soon. Implementation would help soften wave action on sea walls.

“The reason we’re pushing ahead on this is because one of the businesses in town is excited by the stuff were doing in climate change and sea level rise,” she said. “We want something more natural that helps soften the hard edge. We spent a million dollars on Harbor Walk and want to protect it.”

Fertilizer, however, remains the city’s — and the entire Southwest Florida region’s — most challenging panacea, contributing to algae blooms in waterways throughout the area and impacting overall water quality.

Punta Gorda was named one of the most progressive cities in the world by the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the CHNEP was cited by the EPA as one of the six initial Climate Ready Estuary pilot programs in the country.

“Punta Gorda is the very best example,” Mr. Beever said. “When a critical facility reached the end of its life, it was moved to a safer inland location. The city has a whole new building code everyone is doing and being consistent. There are no exemptions. One of the things that will make a plan not work is if everybody can get out of it.”

A living document, the plan will be updated continuously. “Any course we take, we’re going to vet first and make sure it’s the right thing for Punta Gorda,” said Ms. LeBeau. “We’re dealing with things our current population might not see in their lifetimes. We have a group here that is progressive and sees it as: ‘My kids will be here and I want to do something.’”

Meanwhile, Charlotte County is dealing with the plight of its shoreline, putting together a 10-year feasibility and management plan after state legislators denied funding. How and who will pay for beach restoration is one of the key unknown factors.

“We’re in the public workshop stage right now,” said county spokesperson Brian Gleason. “We’re working through identifying the scope of the project and funding.”

Charlotte County’s comprehensive plan doesn’t reference climate change specifically, however it does address coastal erosion and sea level rise through zoning and its coastal management plan, Mr. Gleason said. The only way property owners can circumvent the county’s prohibition of hardscaping on its barrier islands, is by emergency declaration from the state, likely after a significant storm.

“We don’t allow any type of construction or development in areas susceptible to storm surge,” he said, adding it’s simply impossible for builders to bypass codes or flood-level requirements. Buildings are inspected by the county several times before a certificate of occupancy is issued. “It’s inconceivable that much of an epic fail could occur.”

Without enacting climate control measures, coastal communities could be forced to armor up against flood waters and sea level rises or retreat to higher ground. Back in 2009, Mr. Beever priced out alternative climate change controls for Punta Gorda, estimating construction of a surge-blocking bulkhead at $381 million; a view-blocking earthen dike with pumps as high as $3.8 billion; and the “Venice approach” of raising buildings above storm surge zones at $1.2 billion and already underway in Galveston, Texas.

“The take home message is there is time to do a climate adaptation plan and if you plan ahead you’ll be happier,” said Mr. Beever. “Those that don’t do anything aren’t necessarily doomed but they’re going to be pretty miserable. They could become communities left behind.” ¦