Monday, April 18, 2016

Cottrell on St. Augustine & Ocean Level Rise

Perspective: Keep the waders by the front door in St. Augustine
St. Augustine Record
Posted: April 18, 2016 - 12:00am

Although I am neither a scientist nor an expert on global warming or climate change, I pay attention to experts. And what I have learned about sea-level rise in this region over the next few decades is downright scary.

It makes you wonder why anyone would bother to build a new hotel along the San Sebastian River or Matanzas Bay knowing that it may be inaccessible before construction costs are fully recovered.

And why build a showy mansion on the edge of the ocean when it seems inevitable that in a few decades the soothing ocean surf will have moved from the rear of the house to the front — and across the highway to your neighbors? Notwithstanding ongoing debates about global warming and climate change, the water is rising. No question about that. Slowly but surely, the water is rising. And, while we need to find ways to minimize the inevitable damage, we can’t hold back the Atlantic Ocean.

Levees and higher sea walls will help, as will pumping stations, but who is going to pay for all of that stuff? And when do they plan to start building some of it?

Our current drainage infrastructure fails during big storms, so what will it take to get ahead of the curve when it comes to sea-level rise and increased flooding?

A few months ago, on a beautiful evening when walking seemed a lot better than driving and looking for a parking spot, my fiancee and I strolled downtown for dinner at Al’s Pizza on St. George Street. Great pizza — great service.

But as we were finishing our meal, the skies turned ugly black and the ensuing rain resembled a monsoon ripping through Southeast Asia. We had two choices: stay at Al’s until the storm passed or walk home.

We decided to walk home. Maybe we should have stayed at Al’s?

Backed-up stormwater on St. George Street, Tolomato Lane, Spanish Street and Cuna Street lapped over curbs and into businesses. Only when we got to Cordova Street were we able to finally walk without sloshing in calf-deep water.

You don’t have to be a civil engineer to realize that current St. Augustine infrastructure is incapable of handling big storms. So what will we do at high tide when the sea rises another foot or more?

During the April 11 City Commission meeting, local political leaders received a report outlining potential sea rise impacts and what the city needs to do to get prepared.

I won’t bore you with a lot of statistics, but according to what the commission was told, the sea-level rise here will be from 3 inches to nearly 7 feet over the next 15-85 years.

So maybe three feet in the next 40 years? It’s possible.

And if that happens, the ghost of Johnny Cash might drop by here to sing, “How high’s the water, mama? Three feet high and risin’. How high’s the water, papa? Three feet high and risin’.”

For sure, the sea level is rising and has been for a long time. And, as noted at the City Commission meeting, planning for future impacts needs to start now — not down the road.

“St. Augustine is increasingly going to be affected by sea level rise,” the report said. “How the city prepares to address the impacts of this eventual inevitability is paramount to St. Augustine’s future.”

Commissioners were urged to identify and prioritize potential municipal impacts, and I am confident they will do exactly that. But their priorities will logically focus on water quality, sewage disposal, storm water impacts and emergency services — along with levees, sea walls and pumps.

Who, then, will identify and prioritize this community beyond its aging infrastructure? That’s where I think you come in.

City Hall will have its hands full trying to deal with infrastructure issues, so I believe it will take an inclusive citizens committee to identify broader community assets — kind of like floodwaters rising on the Mississippi while you decide what to save and what to leave to the elements.

First, however, I need to grab another pizza at Al’s before sloshing through calf-deep water becomes a daily occurrence on St. George Street.

Steve can be contacted at

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