Meeting the Challenge of Sea Level Rise

Too often, we let big and complicated (or just plain uncomfortable) issues linger until it’s too late to change.  Call it what you will – the urge to act like an ostrich and stick your head in the sand rather than deal with problems head-on is something innate in each of us.

Threats to our shoreline communities vary dramatically throughout the region.
Threats to our shoreline communities vary dramatically throughout the region.

And that’s part of why it was so refreshing to see over 400 individuals, agency staffers, local elected officials and scientists come together earlier this week for a wide-ranging set of conversations about the challenge of Sea Level Rise to the Bay Area, and San Mateo County specifically.  Supervisor Dave Pine brought together fellow elected officials (including Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Assemblyman Rich Gordon), scientists, agency heads, and other local leaders on the issue.

Here are some significant takeaways from the morning of talks.  You can learn more about the event and presenters here.


We need to start planning now:

Author and Oceanographer John Englander put it best in his talk, we know there will be at least 3 feet of sea level rise throughout the Bay.  We just don’t know – at least not precisely – whether it will take 20 years or 50 years for those projections to become reality.  With that in mind, there’s a strong argument for focusing not on the timeline, but on the level of protection needed to keep our shoreline communities safe, and keep the Bay healthy.  That means we need to start planning now; waiting for more accurate projections will only increase adaptation costs and put more of our shoreline at risk.


Different communities have different needs:

As a region, we’re all over the map.  Some counties have built right up to the shoreline, and are facing deep investments in what’s called “hard infrastructure” – the levees and other flood protection that we’re so used to seeing in New Orleans and elsewhere.  But other communities have significant restoration potential (particularly the South and North Bay), where salt ponds and former wetlands can provide incredible benefits to wildlife and communities by buffering against storm surges, which in turn means levees can be smaller and less costly.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; we will have to be creative in addressing the challenges of sea level rise.


Barriers exist, but none are insurmountable:

More than anything else, panelists (and local elected officials) showed that while there are countless barriers that need to be overcome in coming decades, none are insurmountable. And these barriers must be tackled from the local to the federal level.  Panelists from FEMA  discussed necessary changes to mapping and setting rates for flood insurance,  while the Army Corps of Engineers highlighted new challenges to designing and building much of the levee infrastructure. Both called on local pressure from elected officials and residents to change outdated thinking and plan for the future.  Locally, Supervisor Pine and Sam Schuchat, head of the California Coastal Conservancy, highlighted the opportunities presented by a regional funding strategy they are working on as members of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority.


Adaptation to sea level rise will continue to be a complex issue  filled with significant challenges.  But events like this one in San Mateo are a strong first step in raising the profile of issues like sea level rise, and beginning conversations about how we’re going to address one of the greatest challenges of the coming century.