"There was previously nothing in the comprehensive plan about climate change or greenhouse gases," she said.
Similarly, officials here are under a state mandate to upgrade the Keys' entire wastewater system to advanced treatment plants by 2015. It's a $150 million expenditure eating up much of the county budget.
As the wastewater network heads into its final design this fall, there are discussions about raising wastewater pumps higher in the lower Keys, to make sure salt water doesn't seep into the sewage system in the future. The plan in its current form says "all new and significantly renovated roads, parks, pump stations, filled lots, towers, etc., shall have the grade elevated above the lands' projected sea level for the expected life of the infrastructure."
Kevin Wilson, an engineer in the Monroe County Public Works & Engineering Division, said consideration of the height of wastewater pumps is important because salt water flooding into them could wreak havoc with bacteria designed to break down sewage sludge.
"Wastewater has to come first," County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said at the recent meeting. The wastewater upgrade is such a huge expenditure that it is the obvious first choice to direct efforts about climate change, she added.
In Big Pine Key, there is no viable way to prevent seawater from seeping through the porous geology and contaminating the underground freshwater pool that feeds pine forests and deer. The action plan aims to address part of the problem with a "natural systems" section that calls for "low intensity fire regime in fire-dependent uplands and wetlands of the lower Keys."
That essentially is a push for more low-level burning of vulnerable trees, a process that makes them naturally more resilient against storm surges. Controlled burning every decade or so helps clear out leaf litter that gathers on the ground, Bergh explained.
That clearing of litter through fire in turn prevents pine tree roots from migrating upward toward the nutrient-rich litter piles. With their roots tapping into the underground freshwater lens, they are less likely to die from salt water flowing in from heavy rains, he said.
In Bergh's neighborhood, the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to oversee any such burning, as it controls most of the area as part of the National Key Deer Refuge. Many of the pine tree forests in the Keys have not experienced any natural burning for decades, creating a huge amount of buildup on the ground, he said.
"The plan is one way to say, 'Hey, Fish and Wildlife Service, the county thinks this is something you should consider,'" Bergh said. About 60 percent of the Keys is public land, so part of the focus of the climate change advisory committee is to educate and reach out to federal and state agencies.
Federal officials say increased low-level burning is being looked at as part of the service's overall modeling of future climate change impacts. However, there are multiple jurisdictional and social "constraints" to burning more, said Phillip Hughes, an ecologist at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex. Those include the concerns of homeowners leery of increased fire in their neighborhoods.
David Bender, a botanist in the South Florida Ecological Services Office, said the county could play a huge role by buying and conserving land adjacent to public areas. The Keys contain so many species that are found only in this part of Florida that the county will be needed to help create land corridors for plants and animals to move to higher elevations, he explained.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, is helping fund the replanting of Key tree-cactus in the islands that are threatened with extinction because of saltwater intrusion increasingly tainting the soil. This summer, 72 cactuses were planted in the Keys at high ground to try to boost their long-term survival, Bender said.