An update on the Conservancy’s climate work

April 25, 2024

By Carrie Schuman, Ph.D.

In my role as Principal Climate Resilience Specialist, I wanted to take the opportunity to update our membership on the Conservancy’s continuing climate work. I want to start by acknowledging the meaningful ways the Conservancy has been engaging with climate and resilience across the organization. For instance, education has climate concepts incorporated across many of its programs. The Dalton Discovery Center’s John & Carol Walter Discovery Wing includes a gallery dedicated to our changing climate. The gallery is the site for two very engaging programs – one on climate, and another on hurricanes – offered on the Center’s innovative Science on a Sphere exhibit.

The science department brings an invaluable climate change lens to their work, which is particularly evident within their mangrove restoration and research efforts. Mangrove forest is an essential frontline defense for our coastal communities and helps reduce the damage experienced from wind and waves that batter our shorelines during storms.

Our von Arx Wildlife Hospital is at the front lines of caring for wildlife patients with a variety of afflictions including some that are worsened by climate change, such as harmful algal bloom toxicity and impacts from intense hurricanes. Hospital volunteers also continue their efforts, including working outside, even in the record-breaking temperatures our area continues to experience.

The Conservancy was a founding partner of regional initiatives Growing Climate Solutions: Path to Positive Southwest Florida and the SWFL Climate and Community Initiative. The former effort had multiple aims including building local climate awareness. The latter initiative included local community conversations around climate solutions and culminated in a Climate Summit and Final Report.

Under the umbrella of environmental policy, we continue to monitor the progress and outcomes of the US Army Corps Coastal Storm Risk Management (CSRM) Study. The CSRM was initiated to formulate options for protecting County communities from storm surge introduced by coastal storms. The original study culminated in 2021 with options that almost exclusively relied on intensively engineered massive flood walls and storm surge barriers that were not only associated with significant environmental impact like reduced water quality but potentially would have created patchy flood protection – protecting some communities from risk while worsening outcomes for others.

A lack of community and County support for the first round of alternatives led to a re-initiation of the study. The Conservancy rallied the community to provide feedback on the direction of the current process. At early scoping meetings for the re-initiated study, the majority of public comment was in opposition to gates and walls, and most participants requested the Corps focus on more natural and environmentally compatible solutions.  The Conservancy attended follow-up charettes and provided a variety of conceptual nature-based concepts for consideration within the Corps planning process.

Following these steps, and based on public input, the Corps removed the flood walls and storm surge barriers opting for non-structural options within current project alternatives. Elements include beach renourishment, mangrove restoration, and elevating homes and floodproofing essential buildings in environmental justice project areas. The Corps is currently modeling the effectiveness of alternatives and assessing their costs and benefits and plans to release their analysis and recommendations to the County and then the public this Fall.

Restoration of mangroves, like those pictured here, is one of the current elements included within the Army Corps Collier County Coastal Storm Risk Management Study

The Conservancy intends to remain engaged during this continued process. However, even outside of the Army Corps study, we see significant opportunity to advocate for and support balanced adaptation across our region including thoughtful choices about conserving our natural systems while also benefitting from their protection, and with acknowledgment of our environmentally-dependent economy.