Bay Area towns need to address sea-level rise. Will they?

‘It’s not natural for them to cooperate.’

 

A beach in Pacifica, California, undergoes restoration efforts. Sea level rise in the area is so severe that nearby apartment buildings had to be removed because the risk of them falling off the eroding cliffside was too high.

Foster City, a community of curving streets and cul-de-sacs, edges up to California’s San Francisco Bay. Built on wetlands that were drained and filled more than a century ago, the city was barely above sea level to begin with. Today, 34,000 people live in Foster City, and all that keeps water from pouring into their streets and neighborhoods is an earthen levee fortified by concrete and riprap. With climate change raising the sea level, this won’t be enough to protect the small city. So, in 2016, officials floated a plan to raise the levee. 

That worried Hank Ackerman, the flood-control program manager for Alameda County, which lies just across the bay from Foster City. Ackerman wrote in a 2017 letter that he was “very concerned” that raising the levee could shift floodwaters to Alameda County much of whose 36 miles of shoreline is densely populated. He cited research showing that raising seawalls in one area can simply transfer the rising waters elsewhere. “To address sea-level rise jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction will result in an acceleration in the adverse impacts to other entities around the Bay,” Ackerman concluded.

But Foster City moved forward anyway, and in 2018 passed a $90 million levee bond, putting it on track to be the first municipality around the bay with comprehensive shoreline protections against sea-level rise. Alameda County and other local jurisdictions have no recourse against such unilateral actions.

The San Francisco Bay Area has 101 municipalities across the nine counties that ring the bay, and each is like a little kingdom. “Cities are self-interested actors. It’s not natural for them to cooperate,” said Mark Lubell, director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of California, Davis. “Local governments really hate being told what to do.” In their defense, local governments also bear full responsibility for protecting their constituents from sea-level rise.

The water keeps rising, shrinking the window for implementing solutions. Sea-level rise already threatens the bay shore, which, at about 500 miles, is half the length of the entire California coast. The worst is yet to come: The Bay Area needs to plan for a 2-foot rise by 2050 and up to 7 feet by 2100.

In a 2019 survey, Lubell found that Bay Area leaders overwhelmingly agreed that the biggest barrier to addressing sea-level rise is the lack of a regional plan. For years, no one had stepped up to lead such a plan — until now.

STRICTLY SPEAKING, San Francisco Bay is an estuary. This configuration can cause ripple effects at surprising scales: When seawalls are taller in one part of the bay, water can surge over lower walls in a completely different part. The lowest-lying stretches of shoreline already flood during intense storms and the highest of high tides.

Now, in the first bay-wide effort to protect shorelines from rising waters, Jessica Fain, who helped New York City recover from Hurricane Sandy, is convening stakeholders to find common ground. “It’s a tricky issue,” said Fain, a planner at the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which regulates land use along the bay. “How do you get adjacent jurisdictions to talk to each other? At this point, it’s optional.” Fain hopes that giving all stakeholders a voice will ensure buy-in. “Coordination is important, especially in a closed bay system,” she said, adding that while her agency has taken the lead on a regional plan, it has no authority to implement it — which means the plan still won’t be binding.

“How do you get adjacent jurisdictions to talk to each other? At this point, it’s optional.”

Another worry, Fain says, is that without coordination and accountability across Bay Area towns and cities, wealthy residents will get outsized protection. San Rafael, a city on San Francisco Bay in Marin County, is among the nation’s top 10 richest. But San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood is home to 12,000 people, most of them Latinx living in apartments on incomes below the poverty line. The neighborhood is also one of the first here that will be hit by sea-level rise, projected to be submerged as soon as 2030.

Marco Berger, the community resilience coordinator at the Multicultural Center of Marin, worries that Canal neighborhood residents will face both brunt of sea-level rise and displacement by gentrification. While property improvements like flood protection protect residents from the impacts of climate change, they can also drive up housing costs. “We want to create equity for the Canal neighborhood,” Berger said. “They usually don’t have a voice at the table.” 

Unifying all the voices around the bay on sea-level rise is an enormous task, yet Fain faces it with equanimity. “Sea-level rise can feel like a far-off problem — but it’s not when you look at the time it takes to plan large infrastructures,” Fain said. “We need to move on this.” 

Robin Meadows is an independent science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives near the Suisun Marsh, the West Coast's largest brackish wetland, which will be completely underwater with just another foot of sea-level rise. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...