The water waves hit the sea wall alongside The Embarcadero pier in San Francisco, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Climate change denial won’t stymie regional approach to sea level rise

One hundred feet inland from the edge of the San Francisco Bay, a governing body regularly meets and discusses how to prepare nearby communities for the impending rising sea level.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission is tasked with overseeing development in and around the Bay. The commission last month unanimously approved a set of eight action plans to protect vulnerable areas along the San Francisco shoreline.

Currently, the commission reviews and issues development permits on a case-by-case basis. These recommendations are an attempt to create a clear and understandable outline for all future plans based on current data, according to Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who sits on the commission.

The recommendations, which were approved by the commission on Oct. 6, strongly emphasize educating the public and improving current systems. And despite the recent election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president, who has said he does not believe in climate change, the efforts to address sea level rise are still expected by commission staff to move forward in the Bay Area.


Perhaps most significantly, the effort calls for the creation of a regional sea level rise adaptation plan, which will provide an outline for future projects and a forum to develop plans for vulnerable areas throughout the Bay Area’s nine counties. The adaptation plan will build upon current assessments of the region.

The Bay is expected to rise anywhere from two to 12 inches by 2030, and up to 66 inches by 2100, according to a study by the National Research Council in 2012. The commission uses that data to set its policy goals regarding sea level rise.

“[The adaptation plan] will provide focus for projects that are necessary to be built around the Bay, whether they’re natural or manmade,” said Larry Goldzband, the commission’s executive director.

The commission agrees that, if legislation is needed, it will not be for some time. For now, the focus is on moving forward with implementing the recommendations.

“If we are successful in putting together a regional plan adapting to rising tides program, then we may seek legislation to strengthen our ability to have people cooperate with that plan,” said Zachary Wasserman, chair of the commission.

A possibility of future legislation could be developing a multi-agency permitting application process for projects that put fill back into the Bay, according to the BCDC website.

Adding fill back into the natural system promotes the Bay’s capacity to recover from problems like pollutants and spills and could be useful in future projects. It could quicken the pace at which new marsh land or wetlands are restored, Goldzband explained.

But legislation is not necessarily right around the corner.

“We have powerful development interests and other special interests that could derail this process,” Peskin said, adding that it will be the subject of a lot of public discussion, policy making and political negotiation.

The assessment of the nine counties will break down which areas in the region are most vulnerable and allow a better understanding of how to address each area, including the exploration of how low-income areas are affected by sea level rise.

“We’re thinking of communities that have historical vulnerability related to exposure to environmental pollution as well underserved and underprivileged communities,” said Claire Jahns, assistant secretary for climate issues at the California Natural Resources Agency.

Some possible vulnerable areas include Mission Bay.

“There are also some significantly vulnerable communities there,” Wasserman said, adding that Hunters Point and commercial areas along the shore are also vulnerable.
Wasserman explained that over the last decade, the nature of sea level rise in the Bay has been fairly small.

“This is a slow moving emergency,” he said.

Wasserman added, “It is going to come upon us at some point at much greater frequency, but hasn’t yet.”

The Bay Area has already seen the effects, according to Wasserman, with the flooding in Mill Valley and Corte Madera in Marin County that has wiped out intersections for long periods of time. San Francisco has also experienced flooding at The Embarcadero waterfront, which included some minor flooding in BART.

Another important part of the recommendations is an education campaign, which will allow museums and schools to spread the word about rising sea level concerns.

The education campaign would focus not only on raising awareness within decision makers and the general public, but possibly to a greater extent focus on younger people.

Peskin noted successful programs such as recycling started in schools, and students brought that knowledge back to their homes.

The education component will include things like developing a digital game which will show kids what could happen and “show the kinds of things that could be done to address that,” Wasserman said.

The effort also includes exploring new institutional arrangements, identifying and creating plans to protect significant natural and manmade assets, creating a regional data repository to best address strategies and actions around rising sea level, and developing a working group to further explore financial options.

Next Steps

Moving forward, the staff will agree upon a timeline and strategies to use these recommendations.

Three components will be focused on. The first is to update the strategic plan, the second is to include a work plan to be developed and the third is to figure out how to do something “akin to a wholesale review of the recommendations,” according to Goldzband.

The adaptation plan, according to Wasserman, should be completed in 2018. As for now, a workshop finalizing a more detailed approach to implementing these recommendations and creating a working timeline is set for Dec. 1.

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