Saving Sarasota Watershed from sea level rise and stormwater; preserving economy
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02/17/12 Janelle Irwin
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Sarasota’s rapidly changing population makes it difficult to keep up with preserving its watershed. At a three-day symposium that concluded today, professionals in different fields reviewed ways to pick up the pace for the county’s biggest attractor.

The threat of sea level rise has environmentalists worried about damage to homes, roadways, and anything else along coastal areas. Sarasota’s fresh water habitats could also be contaminated by encroaching salt water. Improvements have been made of the last quarter decade, but environmental scientist Jack Merriam said it hasn’t been enough.

We said 25 years ago, local comprehensive plans should address it, permitting processes should ensure that infrastructure should be functional throughout its estimated lifetime. I don’t know that we are there yet in terms of addressing it and beginning to integrate. We as taxpayers pay for a lot of the infrastructure and if it’s along the bay front and it’s under water, it probably won’t work well.

Sarasota’s crawling environmental progress can be in part attributed to the quick population turnover in the area. Former Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner said the revolving door of residents makes it necessary for the same conversations to repeat.

Statistically, every seven years Long Boat Key turns over in population. That your entire population in Long Boat Key is new. So, by the time we have this conversation again in 25 years, you will have cycled through two generations of residents of Long Boat Key. On the mainland, I think the fact that every five years we have a 25% cycling through of our population.

Activists are also trying to improve storm water management. According to Kirschner, in the 80’s local politicians took advantage of opportunities to develop miles of canals to make residential expansion both doable and lucrative. Now those areas have inadequate drainage. But, Kirschner said because the problem is spread over a fairly large geographic area, it presents more of a cost to fix than it does an environmental threat.

Storm water management is perhaps 20% of the remaining issue, but 80% of the total cost which creates one of these really large challenges and the limits that we have right now.

And poor drainage also causes problems on land. Merriam, the environmental scientist used Sarasota’s tourist hotspot of St. Armand’s Circle as an example. During floods the city uses pumps to manage excess water flow. That road serves as an evacuation route to residents. Merriam said that alone should light a fire to start retrofitting drainage.

Our drainage system is very old. In many instances, it’s probably 50 plus years old and so at a high tide, if we get a heavy rain, we currently have areas where the road doesn’t drain well. So, those kind of things will only get worse. We don’t have to debate, is it man made or is it real or not? The road floods. It’s a real problem today.

But again, turnover stands in the way of progress. Tommy Von Birch who is an environmental activist said people who would be willing to change behaviors to improve and preserve Sarasota’s watershed should be educated on how. Unfortunately, she added, not everyone is easy to convince.

We need to educate our newly elected officials. And sometimes, like on our city commission, they change over rather rapidly. I think we’ve got nine months and two years experience on the city commission right now and they need a little help.

Sea walls to block out sea level rise. Expensive drainage retrofits. Educational campaigns to get stuff done. It all costs money. So, former Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner told a story that pointed out one valuable watershed asset that would actually put money into the Sarasota area economy.

The water was black with mullet this past year. Her father who’s 88 years old, who’s lived in Cortez his entire life, said he’s never seen that in his life. Make sure that we embraced that, that we cultivate it and come back here in 25 years with that much more in success stories to celebrate. I think that’s critically important just as the recap for politicians right now because everything’s about job creation.

Kirschner said Mullet export to Cuba, if the embargo is ever lifted, could be a money-maker and a way to bring some historical significance to the area that once had a thriving trade with Cuba. Mullet roe is also an expensive delicacy in Japan. Symposium organizers have created a Watershed Wiki page containing information about how to educate the people on problems and solutions.

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