Environmentalists, developers clash over how to deal with the rising tide 

As weather patterns take unprecedented turns and polar bears step through soft spots in the sea ice, the subject of climate change continues to generate quarrels. At the federal level, hot air howls among lawmakers, who bicker over emission-reduction goals of the distant future, while a few media pundits still reject the notion that the world is changing.

But in the Bay Area, officials are already preparing for global warming by rewriting local building policies in anticipation of rising sea levels.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a 27-member state agency that regulates activities that affect the waters and shoreline of San Francisco Bay, is in the process of crafting regulatory guidelines that could restrict new development projects in parts of the Bay Area threatened by rising waters.

While environmentalists see these measures as wise, some developers contend that the BCDC is being overly precautionary and will unnecessarily stifle employment opportunities for contractors and builders.

The BCDC’s proposed guideline suggests “that state agencies should generally not plan, develop, or build any new significant structure in a place where that structure will require significant protection from sea-level rise.” If one prediction — produced by the United Nations — of a 55-inch rise in sea level by 2100 proves true, the BCDC’s advisory could apply to 332 square miles of Bay Area real estate. This 213,000-acre region is home now to 270,000 people, and state officials believe that figure should grow no larger.

“Given what’s coming in the next century, there are some areas where we just shouldn’t be building,” said BCDC Executive Director Will Travis. Though BCDC only holds authority over land within 100 feet of Bay waters, its proposed recommendations could be applied by local governments in areas beyond the agency’s jurisdiction.

David Lewis, executive director for the environmentalist group Save the Bay, is among those encouraging the enforcement of precautionary building restrictions for the future.

“We know from New Orleans and Japan that building in areas at risk of inundation is a bad idea,” he said. “We’ll need to protect some critical areas, like airports, but the state is saying it’s not smart to put new people at risk.”

But critics of the BCDC’s process have argued that the commission is basing policy-making on faulty maps that show ominous future high-tide lines drawn without regard to existing flood protections. These maps, critics argue, could drive down property values and scare away insurers from real estate where the waters may never reach.

Neil Struthers, CEO of the Santa Clara and San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, said sea walls, levees and other structures can subdue risks of flooding and inundation of low-lying land.

One location whose future is the subject of a fierce debate is Cargill Salt’s former drying pond in Redwood City, a 1,400-acre parcel where the corporation wants to build a bayside community of 12,000 homes for 25,000 people.

The Arizona-based developer tapped to do the job — DMB Associates — currently has lobbyists at work against the BCDC’s suggested building restraints, and Save the Bay’s Lewis suspects Cargill’s so-called “Saltworks” project is fueling much of the opposition to the BCDC’s Bay Plan amendments.

Though the BCDC’s proposal contains no specific language that could immediately halt the project, Pete Hillan, a DMB spokesman, said the BCDC is creating an atmosphere generally unaccommodating to development — what he calls a “retreat and surrender policy approach.” Hillan added that, in spite of some opposition, Cargill is committed to carrying out its project, now six years in the planning.

But what Cargill remains most concerned about, Hillan says, is Bay Area property values, which could drop as a result of the BCDC’s warnings of regions that could one day be flooded or lie below sea level. “Their amendments will basically declare people’s property as heading toward losing all value,” said Hillan, who believes the map depicting threatened areas shows lands that saltwater will never reach. “You can’t reduce someone’s property value without good reason.”

Save the Bay’s Lewis, like many environmentalists, feels that Cargill’s property would best be restored to tidal marshlands, which can buffer shorelines against flooding.

But Hillan said the Saltworks project would include a sturdy seawall that would protect much of Redwood City, amounting to community infrastructure built with private money.

Alan Talansky, chair of the policy committee of San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce, feels that required environmental impact reports and general community involvement already provide sufficient regulation of building activity. “BCDC is proposing a level of oversight that isn’t necessary,” Talansky said. He also feels that predictions of sea level rise are all too speculative.

“To look at the next 100 years and surmise now what might be and then set regulations is the wrong approach,” Talansky said. “No one knows what the real rise will be.”

Many will be made to move away from swelling sea

If projections of rising sea levels are correct, in the coming century thousands of Bay Area residents will be forced to pull up their roots, pack their belongings and abandon their homes for higher ground.

Just as surely, other people’s properties will be protected, their communities buffered with public and private resources against the swelling of the sea by levees, seawalls and other barriers. The question is: Who will be protected and who will be forced to evacuate?

“That’s where we’re going to face some huge environmental justice and social justice issues,” said the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s Will Travis. “We as a society will need to decide which areas we’re going to protect.”

Important commercial centers, such as downtown San Francisco, the Port of Oakland, San Francisco International Airport and Silicon Valley, will certainly receive prioritized safeguarding, Travis said.

Already, plans are being proposed to guard Treasure Island — which will undergo a massive redevelopment in coming years — from the expected sea level rise.

But other threatened areas may never see such protections.

“We may lose Crissy Field, the Aquatic Park, parts of Emeryville, near-shore areas of Mission Bay, and the Eastshore State Park [between Richmond and Oakland],” said Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, a development consultant in San Francisco. He points out that ocean-facing land will also be impacted. “At Ocean Beach, the water could come lapping over the Great Highway.”

This, he says, will give us two options: retreat or build seawalls.

“We’ll have to ask, ‘How much do we want to look like the Netherlands?’,” Bloom said.

The cost for protecting Treasure Island — a community that could house, at most, about 19,000 people — could be $190 million, according to a city spokesman. Under such looming figures, entire neighborhoods, in all likelihood, will be vacated.

“So the question is, how do we move people out of threatened areas in an equitable and fair way?” said the Green Party’s Eric Brooks. “We have to plan. Where will people go? They obviously can’t stay there — even in some wealthy neighborhoods. Parts of the Marina we’ll probably have to evacuate.”

Going under

16 inches: Sea level rise possible by the year 2050
55 inches: Sea-level rise projection for 2100
332 square miles: Area surrounding the Bay that could be under water if sea levels rise 55 inches
270,000: People now living in those areas

Source: United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, BCDC

Slipping away

In the coming century as sea levels rise, some places will be saved while others probably won’t. Here are the areas the experts – regulators, environmentalists, urban planners – predict will be protected and those that might be abdandoned.

What will be saved

  • Downtown San Francisco
  • Downtown Oakland
  • Treasure Island
  • Silicon Valley
  • San Francisco International Airport

What may be abandoned?

  • Richmond-Berkeley Shoreline
  • Crissy Field
  • Alameda
  • Highway 37

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Alastair Bland

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