MOUNTAIN VIEW — Every community that rings San Francisco Bay is vulnerable to rising seas. But while some places are preparing, others are not — and no single agency is coordinating the effort, according to two new civil grand jury reports.
“It is a slow-moving emergency,” said state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, lead author of the state’s first report on climate-related flooding and organizer of a conference Friday at NASA Ames Research Center called “Meeting the Challenges of Sea Level Rise.”
“Our communities are at risk — and the only way we’ll make progress is if we all work together,” he said.
The sea is already rising because of climate change. Measurements at the Golden Gate show that San Francisco Bay rose 8 inches over the past century — and could rise another 16 to 55 inches by 2100.
Experts at the conference agreed that the most damage won’t be done by incremental encroachment of water, but by major storms and extraordinary “king tides.” It is time to adapt to its inevitability — constructing or modifying levees, elevating structures, changing building codes, restoring wetlands and abandoning low-lying areas, experts said.
The impacts of melting ice and global warming will hit California harder than most of the world because most of the state’s coastline is already slowly sinking because of geological forces, a 2012 National Academy of Sciences report warned.
A lot of time and effort has already been spent forecasting the effects of sea level rise in San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of neighborhoods and dozens of Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Yahoo, Intel, Cisco and Oracle face serious threats because their buildings sit so close to the bay.
State agencies like the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission are beginning to help companies and local governments by providing data, tools and possible approaches to adapt to rising seas.
What’s missing now is a unified regional solution, according to experts and the two civil grand jury reports.
“Cities and other relevant agencies have a wide, often disjointed array of responses, demonstrating varying levels of commitment, efficiency, and staffing,” concluded the Santa Clara County Grand Jury report released June 16.
For instance, while Mountain View and the Santa Clara Valley Water District are preparing to implement projects to protect them from rising seas, Milpitas is not, it found. Cities such as Palo Alto and Sunnyvale are still largely in the planning process.
In Santa Clara County, the water district should coordinate the county’s effort, the grand jury recommended — a project the district says it can’t now assume because of its stunning $850 million price tag.
The San Mateo County Grand Jury report, released June 5, did not look at city-specific efforts but also concluded that the county isn’t organized to deal with flooding — and urged greater coordination among jurisdictions.
Similarly, San Francisco has not created plans to address rising seas into its policies, so it needs to amend planning and building codes and also retrofit its waste water treatment system to prevent saltwater backflow, according to a 2013 San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report.
In the East Bay, solutions are piecemeal and still in the research stage. Along the Hayward shoreline, for instance, the state-funded Adapting to Rising Tides program is studying reconstruction of the natural slope of the shoreline — with the help of more than 70,000 native plants — to limit the encroachment of sea rise. The same program is planning a project in west and central Contra Costa County, from Richmond to Bay Point.
“I am not waiting for a nine-county solution,” said Dave Pine, a San Mateo County supervisor. “It takes local jurisdictions to just say, ‘We are not going to wait for consensus across the Bay Area. And we’re not going to wait for the federal government to come to the rescue.’ “
But some issues must be addressed on a county or regional level, said Melanie Richardson, deputy operating officer of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
“It doesn’t really work to address one city at a time because what one city does affects the next one,” she said.
For instance, building a sea wall in one city could force water onto an adjacent city. “If we come up with a solution,” Richardson said, “it will be a solution for the whole bay. “
The Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency, passed the first regulations to require developers to consider sea-level rise on projects along the bay’s shoreline.
Currently flood control is the responsibility of each city, just as cities have responsibility for public safety and land use. In fact, exposure to sea-level rise is partly the result of land-use decisions by cities to develop tidal wetlands and other low-lying areas.
And each link in the chain of levees along the bay is the responsibility of a different city or special agency.
But flood risk is based on topography, not political boundaries. The impact of sea-level rise will fall on all county or Bay Area residents — for instance, damaging wastewater treatment plants, inundating freeways, flooding homes and high-tech firms, and reducing tax revenues.
So the safety of properties in any given city often depends on levee projects undertaken by its neighboring cities — and the public is protected only when the “weakest link” in the chain of levees is able to meet the threat.
According to the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report, no countywide agency has oversight of the levees as a whole. And no agency provides countywide planning, coordinates cities’ construction and maintenance efforts, or assists with grant applications related to flooding, the report said.
In addition, cities do not contribute money to pay for projects outside their jurisdiction — even though their own residents may benefit, the report found.
There has been little dissemination of information about how Bay Area cities and agencies are addressing the risk of rising sea level. That is a problem that Assemblyman Gordon hopes to fix with proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 2516, which would establish an online statewide database of preparedness.
And while the state’s new California Climate Resilience Account will help plan and implement ways to protect against sea level rise, only $2.5 million is currently allocated.
Meanwhile, cities such as Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale say they want to retain control of protective projects within their jurisdictions — but would like to have an organization assume responsibility for coordinating the region’s plans and activities.
Of Bay Area cities, Mountain View has taken the lead in protection. It has an extensive plan in place and is taking steps — mostly on its own at a cost of $43 million to $57 million — to address the threat of sea-level rise. There are proposals to improve levees at Charleston Slough, Lower Permanente Creek and Lower Stevens Creek and elsewhere. There are plans to elevate ground at its golf course, modify pump stations and improve the tide gates.
In the South Bay, there’s a $162 million proposal to restore protective wetlands while also building a levee that is 3.7 miles long and 15.2 feet high, from Guadalupe River to Coyote Creek. This is organized by the South San Francisco Bay Shoreline Study, a consortium of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coastal Conservancy and the water district.
Along Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority is widening existing levees and designing new ones. The authority also aims to create real estate easements and relocate utilities.
“This isn’t a theoretical risk,” said U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto. “We face a very real and pressing threat from the significant and rapid rise of sea level, threatening courts, bridges, transportation, utilities, some of the world’s largest companies and important wetlands and endangered species.
“The data supporting the likelihood of these events is abundant,” she said. “Where we’re short is on solutions.”