By Eric Staats
East Naples might not be the place most people think of when they think of rising sea levels, but that's what Jerry Kurtz sees.
On the north side of U.S. 41, not far from the Walmart, a weir that controls water flows into Haldeman Creek and eventually Naples Bay is one of four aging weirs that sit on the county's front line against climate change.
With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting sea levels to rise as much as 2 feet by 2050 and by as much as 6.6 feet by 2100, the new weirs being planned need to be built to handle any extra water that might slosh their way, Kurtz said.
"I don't think we can afford to debate whether it's happening anymore," said Kurtz, the county's principal stormwater planner.
Putting sea level rise on the map in Southwest Florida was the point of a first-of-its-kind, day-long summit Thursday at Florida Gulf Coast University that drew about 200 people.
Organizer Ray Judah, a former Lee County commissioner, said Southwest Florida is way behind Florida's East Coast when it comes to recognizing the threat and launching efforts to combat it, or at least prepare for it.
"Sea level rise is real," said Judah, coordinator for the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, which hosted the summit with the League of Women Voters of Lee County. "We can no longer ignore the sea level rise impacts to our environment and our economy."
Water supplies are threatened by saltwater intrusion. Sea level rise maps show sewage plants, roads and airports under water. Hurricanes could become more dangerous. Tax bases could be reduced.
At the other end of Alligator Alley, the counties of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe have created a climate change compact to work together to plan for sea level rise and attract federal funds to help.
President Barack Obama hailed the effort when he stopped in the Everglades for Earth Day last month.
Paying the tab for sea level rise is beyond the reach of individual local governments, said Jennifer Jurado, community resilience director for Broward County. "Working as a region really helps to do that."
Naples City Councilwoman Linda Penninman said the political will does not exist to create a similar organization in Southwest Florida.
"With so many naysayers? I don't think so," she said.
Instead, Penniman said, it "might really be a good idea" for Naples to join the East Coast compact or at least adopt its approach to climate change planning.
She said she wonders how many people would be displaced from condominiums built along the beach on Gulf Shore Boulevard should a combination of a hurricane and rising seas slap Naples' coast.
"What are we going to do with all of them?" Penniman said. "We haven't had our wake-up call, but if it happens, it doesn't mean we shouldn't be ready."
Kurtz, the county's stormwater planner, listened to speakers at Thursday's summit and thought about those weirs.
Besides the one on Haldeman Creek, weirs that control flows in Henderson Creek in East Naples, the Gordon River in Naples and the Cocohatchee River in North Naples also are set to be replaced.
Each weir is at the tail end of county drainage systems, the last point where the county controls how water flows to and from a rising sea. "We realize we've got to pay attention," Kurtz said. "We're interested. We're concerned."
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