A recently released report from the Assembly’s Select Committee on Sea Level Rise and the California Economy outlines findings and makes policy recommendations that San Mateo County officials hope will help them plan for the future.
The report’s release last week followed more than a year of hearings and committee chair Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, said he’s hopeful the Legislature’s first report of this kind will spread awareness and encourage statewide coordination.
“The seas are rising, we know that, and scientists tell us they’re going to continue to rise. We are not at the beginning of the problem; we’re in the middle. And yet we have not done any planning. We haven’t done the adaptation that’s going to be necessary. So I’m hopeful that this report is in some ways a wake-up call, an alarm that calls us to action and gets the state of California to begin to take the steps that will be necessary to adapt to sea level rise.”
According to the report, California is in the midst of a slow-moving emergency and, even if greenhouse gases are reduced, it will experience three feet of sea level rise by 2100. The state is also susceptible to frequent extreme storms and King Tides and the report encourages communities to adapt current and future planning to climate change predictions. The state has much at stake, such as coastal agriculture, fishing and tourism economies and critical infrastructure like airports, schools, fire stations, hospitals and wastewater treatment plants, according to the report. Nearly 3,500 miles of roads, 280 miles of railroads are also at risk and sea level rise will accelerate the erosion of the state’s 840 miles of coastline, according to the report.
Yet as dire as the predictions are, officials stress beginning to prepare and plan with sea level rise in mind will help keep the state thriving.
San Mateo County challenges
Nearly three-fourths of the state’s population resides near the coastline and the San Francisco Bay shoreline and San Mateo County is identified as a hot spot for sea level rise.
Gordon, Dave Pine, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, have held several conferences to discuss the pending dilemma and the need for cities and jurisdictions to combine efforts.
Having the state begin to create guiding principles is a step in the right direction, Pine said.
“The report is a valuable contribution to highlight the challenges of sea level rise throughout the state. Throughout the last year or so, we’ve done a lot of work in San Mateo County to bring attention to the issue and of course this study speaks to the challenges statewide. And I think it does a good job in highlighting the breadth of assets that will be at risk and the types of industries that will be at risk,” Pine said.
Two of San Mateo County’s most notable assets at risk are the San Francisco International Airport and multiple wastewater treatment plants, Gordon said. SFO has already begun planning for sea level rise and but Gordon said he is seriously concerned for the treatment plants.
The impacts on the wastewater treatment facilities and costs associated with improvements are solid examples of how sea level rise has an expansive effect, he said.
“Our wastewater treatment plants, which will all have to be retrofitted at some point, is an area that directly impacts every single resident of San Mateo County. Because our treatment facilities are primarily located along the Bayfront and wastewater flows from every community whether you’re located on the Bay or not,” Gordon said.
After the last county conference in June, Pine said working groups are to be formed to prepare a countywide sea level rise vulnerability assessment, create an organizational structure for ongoing efforts and consider funding options.
Lack of funding
Another poignant trial cities and the state face as they plan for sea level rise is a lack of financial resources.
As part of the 2014-15 state budget, $2.5 million was allocated for the new California Climate Resilience Account. But with the extensive communities and economies predicted to be affected by sea level rise, the money may not go far.
Applicants to the Coastal Commission’s Local Coastal Program Assistance Grant Program requested over five times the amount of available funding, according to the report.
The report recommends the state consider creating a low-interest revolving loan fund geared toward supporting communities or industries in need of assistance and incentivize planning and adaptation through additional funding.
Pine said San Mateo County is not alone in its struggle and it is critical to act quickly in addressing the problem.
“I think a particular challenge will be that San Francisco Bay is not the only place in California and certainly not the only place in the nation that will be affected by sea level rise. And there will be a real competition for resources. So to the extent that we have a plan in place, we’ll be better equipped to compete for those resources,” Pine said.
Pine and Gordon said one of the most monumental aspects to the report is having the state begin to take an oversight role and incentivize continued research and studies.
“I think it’s important for the state agencies to begin to set some guidance. We need to, across the state of California, so that every local jurisdiction is working with the same set of assumptions,” Gordon said. “We all ought to be planning at the same level and that will require some state guidance.”
Creating a state repository to ensure people are making educated policy decisions will be key to continued efforts. With that in mind, Gordon currently has pending legislation to create an online sea level rise database where municipalities can learn and share best practices.
Pine said the city of San Francisco has also begun to actively investigate the challenges and solutions to navigating sea level rise and its civil grand jury recently released a related report. Sea level rise knows no county or city boundaries, and Pine said the state’s report is a positive step in doing more than just mulling the issue.
“What I like about this report is it’s one of the more concrete things I’ve seen. We’re so early in this discussion and the focus has primarily been on the scope of this problem and there hasn’t been much discussion of what to do on it,” Pine said. “Addressing sea level rise will require a concerted effort over many decades. So we are really at this point, really it’s the first pitch in a nine-inning game. We’ve started, that’s a good first step. It’s an important step.”
To read the Assembly’s report, Sea-Level Rise: a Slow-Moving Emergency, visit http://sealevelrise.assembly.ca.gov/reports.
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