Guest opinion: With a rapidly changing climate, nature is our best defense
We are fortunate in Southwest Florida to still have meaningful natural resources such as mangroves, coastal dunes, wetlands, uplands and agricultural and open land. These assets are essential for maintaining water quality, wildlife habitat, our economy and our quality of life. These resources also act as a critical first line of defense for managing impacts from a rapidly changing climate, and help to mitigate the causes of these threats. Unfortunately, we are moving in the wrong direction, placing our future at risk by not preserving these valuable resources that protect our community.
Southwest Florida includes some of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. The U.S. Census ranked Fort Myers sixth in the nation for population growth from 2020 to 2021. As Southwest Florida’s population grows, our community’s exposure to the impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat and flooding, also increases.
Protecting and preserving natural areas and greenspace should be top of mind for every civic, business and community leader. Consider the importance of three key natural systems in Southwest Florida. Mangroves are our first line of defense against hurricanes and storm surge. They prevent erosion and act as vast carbon sinks, absorbing up to four times more carbon than land-based forests. Mangroves are essential to our region’s tourism-based economy, as they improve water quality and are also the nurseries of the sea, providing a thriving habitat for valuable juvenile game fish and other species essential to our coastal economy.
A second core element of our natural defense is inland wetlands. Our region has seen significant wetland loss in the past few decades. As we experience dramatic changes in rainfall patterns, with higher threats of flooding, we should appreciate the protective value of our wetlands. One acre of wetland can store between 1 and 1.5 million gallons of floodwater. They act as a natural sponge, retaining water during heavy rains, while filtering and releasing water as needed. We need every acre of wetland preserved in Southwest Florida, not a legacy of destroying wetlands.
The third key natural bulwark to defend us from the impacts of climate change is minimizing the losses of agricultural lands and upland forests. Forests and grasslands provide flood attenuation by stopping or slowing rushing water from reaching coasts after a hurricane or major storm event. These open spaces, such as wetlands, grasslands, and farmlands, are important for allowing rainwater to percolate through the soil and replenish precious groundwater supplies. Over 90% of Florida’s population relies on fresh groundwater from aquifers for our drinking water supply. With continued growth comes more demand on water resources. In the coming decades, saltwater intrusion into our aquifers could become a reality due to sea level rise if they are depleted. The increased rate at which developments are being approved in our eastern lands of Collier and Lee Counties, threatens this important facet of our critical natural resources.
Nature is our best defense in every corner of our region. Purchasing conservation land is more important than ever. Programs such as Conservation Collier and Lee County’s Conservation 20/20 are important land acquisition programs that will protect essential undeveloped spaces for future generations. Nature-based solutions for coastal protection also benefits the tourism industry, which provides thousands of jobs over decades and centuries, while engineering new solutions like seawalls and coastal restoration projects only provides jobs lasting several years.
In order to protect our communities, local officials and planning staff must understand and embrace the importance of preserving natural lands and minimizing loss of agricultural lands. Local governments have limited resources now, but resources are likely to become further limited as more adaptation projects are needed. New funding sources will inevitably be required to invest in the adaptations that our region will need to cope with climate change. Competition for essential investment dollars will be fierce. That makes prevention – by preserving essential remaining natural resources – one of the best and most affordable immediate options for ensuring our region’s resilience.
We all have a role to play in protecting our community, from addressing the root causes of climate change to preparing now for the increased negative impacts it will bring.
SWFL Climate & Community Summit: IF YOU GO
We encourage all members of the public and elected officials to attend the SWFL Climate & Community Summit, held at the Hyatt Coconut Point on Oct. 6, to take part in a collective conversation around developing solutions for the future of our community. Register at swflclimate.org/.
Rob Moher is the President and CEO for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.