St. Augustine presses for ‘policy change’ on sea level rise

The city of St. Augustine is trying to get more funding for projects related to sea level rise and tidal flooding.


St. Augustine and other coastal communities don’t have the resources to make the changes on their own, and a top legislative priority is getting help making the city’s infrastructure better able to deal with flooding, according to the city.

“We’re trying to effect a policy change at the state level,” City Manager John Regan said. “It often can take years to be successful.”

One branch of the city’s effort is Resiliency Florida, a group that is gathering support from communities to plan for sea level rise and extreme weather. Mayor Nancy Shaver is vice chair of the group.

“If you say climate change in a political environment, it becomes an ideological discussion about who’s causing it,” Shaver said. “So we’re really focused on just the nuts and bolts (such as sea level rise and storm water infrastructure).”

City infrastructure, including its wastewater treatment plant, is vulnerable to flooding, according to a study by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

In low-lying areas such as Davis Shores, high tides flood streets more than a dozen times a year, and can cause sewer overflows and prevent emergency access, according to the city.

On a recent day, state Rep. Cyndi Stevenson and officials from the city, the St. Johns River Water Management District and others stopped in Davis Shores to look at an area vulnerable to flooding. The tour looked at projects related to improving drainage or easing flooding, some of which the district is helping with.

The city is installing valves in the neighborhood’s stormwater system to keep high tides from backing up into the system and causing flooding. But the valves allow stormwater to go out, according to the city. The project should help about 1,000 homes.

After the tour, Stevenson said sea level rise is on her agenda.

“It’s not a fake issue,” Stevenson said. “It’s a real issue … that (communities are) addressing with their taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to deal with what they’re experiencing, and I think that’s something that we can look at and address. Because clearly there are … cycles … that we don’t understand yet, but you can’t deny when you’re experiencing increased flooding.”

A 2016 University of Florida report, which looked at possible sea level rise effects in St. Augustine, said sea level rise could be 0.25 to 6.67 feet within 15 to 85 years.

Protecting downtown St. Augustine from sea level rise is part of the reason city officials are seeking Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for the multi-million-dollar “Lake Maria Sanchez Flood Mitigation Project.”

The project will help protect part of downtown from flooding from high tides, storm surge and sea level rise, according to the city. An announcement about funding should come in the fall, according to the city.

“I’m very interested in working with them to see what we can do to address those issues,” Stevenson said.

State Sen. Travis Hutson, who was not on the bus tour, but spoke over the phone, said he’s talked with Shaver about sea level rise, but hasn’t heard the city overall take an official position — and he’d like to see a plan the city has for dealing with it.

He said he treats the coastal areas fairly and does have concerns about coastal flooding. Still, sea level rise is not something many people are bringing up outside of coastal areas.

“It’s more, to me, a federal issue,” he said. “If sea levels were to rise significantly over the next 15 to 20 years, it’s something we’d have to actively take a part in,” he said.

Things that can be done in the short-term include making sure drainage systems are up to date, and Hutson said he supports projects like that and others that alleviate coastal flooding.

But there hasn’t been a large outcry about sea level rise from his community, except for some who have concerns for decades down the road, he said.

“Certainly we’re not going to build a 10-foot wall today around the city of St. Augustine in hopes that the sea level doesn’t (rise) nine feet 100 years from now,” he said. “I don’t know that, that makes economically a lot of sense right now.”