I have personally attended most of the Planning and County Commission meetings regarding the Aqua by the Bay development, so I’ve heard most of the arguments against the project and they range from the desecration of the seagrass flats and mangrove fringe that will endanger our vast sea life resources and fish stocks, to building heights that violate the county’s Comprehensive Plan, to traffic and density impacts in West Bradenton. They are all valid arguments but I think the commissioners are not seeing the potentially deadliest and costliest “unintended consequence” of developing the last vast area of wetland and “green space” left in western Manatee County.
A few weeks back we watched in horror as some areas of the greater Houston area were covered in upwards of 25-30 feet of water caused by the unprecedented amount of rainfall delivered by Hurricane Harvey. Interstate 10 turned into a white capped river that was impassable in many places. In newly developed areas in north Houston, entire suburban neighborhoods that have replaced the open prairies were completely flooded out. Images of elderly patients in waist deep floodwaters and daring rooftop rescues clogged social media newsfeeds. The whole time here in Florida I was thinking about just how easily this could be us.
There is a reason the flooding was so much more severe than in past storms. In a report published by Texas A&M University studying the wetland loss in the Houston area between 1992-2010, the greatest loss was in Harris County. Making up one of 8 counties in the greater Houston area, it had the greatest loss of wetlands, more than double the remaining counties combined. 29% may not sound like a lot, but let’s look at the preliminary analysis of the Harris County flooding from Harvey published just this past week by the University of California Davis Center For Watershed Sciences.
Researchers used satellite images of the inundation and overlaid them onto FEMA flood maps. A staggering 66.83% of the flooding in Harris county occurred in the areas classified as the “500-year floodplain” and “Minimal flood hazard” areas. Hurricane Harvey represents the third “500-year flood” in Harris County the past three years. Yes, you read that right, let that sink in for a minute. The report goes on to say, “The catastrophic extent of current flooding in Texas points not only to a truly extreme event this year, but to a pervasive pattern of repetitive flooding. This pattern, in Texas and the Houston area, points almost inescapably to local factors such as runaway development and lack of balanced hydronic planning.”
Manatee County is very different than Houston, mind you. And the property in question holds greater dangers for surrounding residents than I think even the commission realizes for the simple fact that it is the last bayfront shoreline that can naturally protect us from storm surge. Residents of neighboring Tidy Island raised these very concerns. The general development plan calls for a long canal to be dug the entire length of the property to the landward side of the mangrove fringe. A seawall would then be put in place to hold the 8 feet of water in the “estuary enhancement area” as the developers have dubbed it, and the fill would be used to raise the entire property above the 100-year floodplain. Tidy Island’s very legitimate concern is that a storm surge would naturally be forced north and south of this man-made topographic change, completely flooding Tidy Island and the historic fishing village of Cortez to the north, and Legend’s Bay, El Conquistador and Bayshore Gardens to the south.
And they are right, it would do just that. Let’s not even get into what this canal/seawall combination would do to the pristine mangrove fringe that lines the entire shoreline of this property. But what of rainfall runoff? How would that work? We saw unprecedented flooding right here at home a few weeks ago. I was trapped at a birthday party near Bradenton Country Club for hours when flash flooding brought knee high water to the neighborhood in just a matter of a few hours. Cars flooded out and were stranded. This level of flooding happened in spite of a yearlong effort to improve the storm drains along 51st Street had been made. What about the areas along El Conquistador Parkway? IMG? What about the commercial areas around 75th street and Cortez? How will these areas be impacted by storm water runoff when the last vast area of coastal green space that acted as a natural runoff for a large sector of west Bradenton is raised higher than the surrounding areas and then paved over? We saw exactly what will happen this past week in Houston. Whenever you change the lay of the land and then pave over it all, it has nowhere to go but into our homes, our roads and our businesses. We have seen this time and again all over the country, at times with disastrous results.
Studies done regarding other coastal high hazard areas have projected catastrophic damage in the event of even a medium range storm surge to over-developed coastal areas like Clearwater and Saint Petersburg as the result of insufficient drainage. The Commission should be paying attention to those studies as well.
Fortunately, our area seems to have a disproportionate number of retired experts in the environmental field, and they have been showing up in masse to speak out against this project. The one and only thing standing in the way of this development is the people. The people who have lived here for decades, sometimes generations, who have seen the changes and realize that enough is enough. After the harrowing week we had following Hurricane Irma and with a month and a half left to go this hurricane season, we should all be much more acutely aware of our vulnerability to large storms and the damage they bring. Can we really afford to increase our population density along our shores? With Irma, Manatee County shelters were at capacity, where would we shelter an additional several thousand people? This area along Long Bar was the only area forecast to be hit by over 9 feet of surge during Irma, surrounding areas were only projected to get between 2-5 feet. Thankfully the surge never came, but it showed us very clearly that Long Bar is the bay’s proverbial “Achilles Heel” when considering storm surge.
I hope the people of Manatee County will explore these issues and take those concerns to the commission. I hope the commission takes time to consider all these factors, and can learn from our recent experience with Hurricane Irma as well as Houston’s example of the consequences of poor hydrology planning.