Wetlands or Sea Walls – Preparing for Sea Level Rise

Bay Area homes stand below water level behind levee
Even without the significant impacts of sea level rise, communities like Redwood Shores are already
at risk of flooding during high tides.
(December 14, 2012 – Photo Credit: Matt Leddy)

Climate change has been in the news a lot lately with the President’s climate change speech, Rolling Stone’s Rising Seas: A City-by-City Forecast article, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20 billion plan to defend New York City from the effects of global warming.  However, while the scientific community, the media, and political leaders are calling for action, a recent poll shows that Americans are relatively unconcerned about global climate change.

Though sea level rise and flooding pose significant threats here in the Bay Area, we don’t seem to think of global climate change as a threat to our safety.  For years we’ve heard about climate change as something that will affect us in the future.  The fact is, the real effects of climate change are already well-underway.

According to National Geographic, sea level has already risen by 4-8 inches in the past century and is predicted to rise another 12-18 inches by 2050 and 21-55 inches by 2100.  Sea level rise will impact our shoreline and at-or-below sea level communities throughout the San Francisco Bay Delta Region (check out this map showing which areas could be inundated by even a 1 meter sea level rise).

We can’t prevent sea level riseEven if we were able to stop producing greenhouse gases tomorrow, the high concentration of carbon dioxide built up in the atmosphere will keep us on a trajectory that will take at least the next hundred years to slow or reverse.  As the President said in his speech, “it’s like tapping the brakes of a car before you come to a complete stop and then can shift into reverse.”  To combat global warming, we must both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and plan for the inevitable effects of climate change, including sea level rise.

While the President spoke of building stronger, more resilient infrastructure like seawalls and hardened power grids, water systems, and fuel supplies, he also recognized that we must “protect the dunes and wetlands that pull double duty as green space and as natural storm barriers.”  A study published on Monday found that natural defenses like reefs, dunes, and marshes are key to protecting lives and property against storm surges and sea-level rise.

Wetlands act as sponges, slowing down and soaking up huge volumes of water during storms and tidal surges.  They also prevent erosion by slowing down runoff and holding sediment in place.  Here in the Bay, wetland restoration is a cost-effective way to help reduce the impacts of sea level rise on developed shoreline areas.  We’ve been working towards a goal of 100,000 acres of healthy wetlands for years, but the lack of steady, reliable funding to implement wetland restoration opportunities is the greatest obstacle to success.

San Francisco Bay has consistently received disproportionately low federal investment compared to other significant bodies of water like Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound.  In response, Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Senator Dianne Feinstein have introduced the San Francisco Bay Restoration Act to create a five year program to fund crucial Bay restoration work.  Help prepare our region for sea level rise: take action to secure federal funding for San Francisco Bay wetland restoration and flood protection.