CLEARWATER — The pounding from Tropical Storm Debby in 2012 left just a sliver of sand on some Treasure Island beaches and exposed dunes on Pass-a-Grille to extreme high tides.
The damage from storm surge was costly, with those beaches and Upham Beach in line for a $16 million beach nourishment project this year. But it also served as a warning of how vulnerable peninsular Pinellas County is to projected rises in sea level in the coming decades.
“Last year Debby decimated our beaches — that was nothing,” said Kelli Levy, natural resources section manager. “Imagine us year after year getting hit like that.”
That is exactly what Pinellas County commissioners want the county staff to do.
Commissioners recently ordered the staff to move ahead with a study to highlight which land and county services are most vulnerable to sea level rise. County officials also are talking with scientists from local universities and agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Army Corp. of Engineers to get expert predictions on what Pinellas can expect from future storms and floods.
The result could be a regional compact similar to one in South Florida where local governments have partnered to try to prepare for a phenomenon that officials fear could drastically change daily life.
“We definitely want an aggressive stance — we want it to be regional, and we want it to include the Tampa Bay area,” Commissioner Ken Welch said. “The first step would be a consensus on the studies that have been done.”
Though some still are skeptical about sea level rise, there is little doubt in the scientific community that higher air temperatures are resulting in more melting of snow and ice, raising the level of the oceans that cover two-thirds of Earth.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group established by the United Nations Environment Program, is forecasting a 2-foot mean sea level rise by the year 2100 unless action is taken to lower the emission of greenhouse gases.
“We can debate the amount or the cause, but there is no doubt in my mind it is rising,” said Gary Mitchum, professor and associate dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. “We have very strong consensus that things are changing and sea level is going to rise.”
Problems arising from sea level rise would likely be felt well before the end of the century. Higher tides will accelerate erosion of beaches and the deterioration of sea walls and groins. Saltwater will penetrate deeper into groundwater, making freshwater springs undrinkable and causing more backflows of sewer systems.
The county’s next step is likely to be a vulnerability assessment similar to ones done for the cities of Safety Harbor and Gulfport by the University of Florida’s Pinellas County Extension Office. The study would highlight schools, roads, hospitals, infrastructure such as sewers and water plants and emergency-services providers that are most vulnerable and may have to be relocated. It would take about a year to complete, Levy said.
Commissioners also want to figure out how to incorporate the threat of sea level rise into future land-use planning, which could mean tough political decisions in the future about limiting development on the shoreline.
Also at risk would be the county’s beaches and its tourism economy, with erosion of beaches expected to accelerate.
Faced with the same threat, Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties formed a compact to collaborate on planning and responses to rising seas and extreme weather.
A similar regional approach in the Bay area with local governments joining with groups such as the Tampa Bay Estuary and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council may be the way forward, Welch said.
“Over the next 10, 20 years, we will see changes in the way we grow,” Welch said. “We have to build sea level rise into that because it affects everything that we do.”