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Florida Bill Could Require Sea-Level-Rise Studies for Publicly Funded Buildings

Flooding at the Dorothy Land Boat Ramp in Lafayette County in 2014.EXPAND
Flooding at the Dorothy Land Boat Ramp in Lafayette County in 2014.

As sea levels continue to rise, Florida has taken a licking for its bad habit of climate-ignorant development.

But despite warnings from the state's most brilliant and respected scientists, Gov. Rick Scott has more or less disregarded the issue, infamously banning the Department of Environmental Protection from using the term "climate change" in 2015. And though national publications such as Scientific American have taken developers to task for their reluctance to stop building along the coast, state law does little to discourage the practice.

State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez wants to change that. Last week, he filed a bill that would require contractors to conduct what's called a sea-level impact projection study on state-funded buildings near the coastline. Before the first shovel hits the ground, builders would have to publish the results — even if they show the building could be underwater in a few years.

"If you're going to get state money for certain kinds of construction projects, you're going to have to go through the planning process with special regard for the effects of sea-level rise," Rodriguez says. "It's an effort to start a conversation about planning."

The senator from Miami says Hurricane Irma was an unfortunate lesson in the fragility of the state's infrastructure. In Southwest Florida, for example, the storm wrecked seawalls from Cape Coral all the way up to Punta Gorda.

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"After Irma, the discussion about rebuilding certain seawalls and certain infrastructure raises important questions about what standards they should be built at," Rodriguez says. "Should they be rebuilt as is or with 50-year plan accounting for more severe weather?"

The bill would require contractors to assess how flooding would affect state-funded buildings over time and make a list of design alternatives that could mitigate the risk. Construction companies would also have to gauge the impact on public safety and the environment, including the potential for electrocution or pollution in the event of flooding. Builders who didn't comply could be slapped with a civil lawsuit from the state.

Despite having a fair share of climate-denying colleagues, Rodriguez says he hopes to find bipartisan support for the bill, which is really just a way to protect the state's investments.

"My experience has been that in Tallahassee... when we're talking about infrastructure, talking about coastal construction, a lot of my colleagues zero in on what's really happening and put all that aside," he says. "What the bill does is say that we need to be better prepared when it comes to state spending on infrastructure. You don't have to believe in manmade climate change."

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