California Coastal Development Commission Considers Rising Seas

Written by Anne Wallach Thomas on . Posted in Learn, The Wonk Room

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission recently released a new report and adopted a revised land use plan, making a great topic for my new column, focusing on preparation and safety from climate risks, here at Planet Change. So, I’ve asked Sarah Newkirk, director of Coastal Conservation at The Nature Conservancy in California, some questions about it.

Q: A San Francisco Bay planning agency was recently among the first to address sea level rise in its development plan. Why is this important?

 A: The Bay Plan Amendment was one of the first times a state or regional land use management agency has developed an actionable management plan that incorporated sea level rise. California has been very forward-thinking about developing the science of sea level rise and climate change adaptation. The real challenge, then, has been for agencies to figure out how to respond to what that science is telling them: how to adapt to sea level rise in a way that both protects Bay ecosystems and does not unduly hinder development?

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission is always breaking new ground in land use planning, and it did so again by actually taking up the issue of how to change its policies and day-to-day practices in the face of rising waters and shifting shorelines.  

Q:  As part of its proposed plan, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission is encouraging the use of wetlands to protect against floods. How do wetlands protect property?  

 A. One of the most promising and well-founded nature-based adaptation approaches is the protection and restoration of tidal marshes as a first line of defense against sea level rise. Actions to protect California’s tidal marshes provide benefits for nature and people alike, by protecting human communities from storms, enhancing water quality, slowing erosion, providing recreational opportunities, and more. Wetlands protect property by reducing storm surge, dampening wind and wave energy, and generally acting as a sponge. When we fill coastal wetlands, or otherwise reduce their natural functioning, we lose those benefits – and the cost can be very high.

 Q:  When thinking about crucial community interests along the bay – the risks are very real to families and businesses, and the trade-offs for communities can be very costly. How can local decision makers ensure they are choosing the best solutions to meet their needs?

 A. Communities need to think about a package of adaptation strategies, and where specific strategies can be most effectively applied. Wetlands are not a panacea…and sea walls and levees are not a panacea either. But the proposition that communities must sacrifice safety and prosperity if they want to save wetlands is patently false.

The Conservancy has created the Coastal Resilience approach that combines science, decision-making tools, and local partnerships to advance planning for sea level rise and hazards with a more complete understanding of what the specific vulnerabilities and trade-offs really are. Coastal Resilience is designed to help decision makers identify multi-benefit approaches: those that can protect ecological, social and economic resources at the same time.

Q:   What about existing buildings located in areas that are expected to be inundated?  What are some ways communities can address this?

A. Communities should plan ahead. In communities where we have developed Coastal Resilience tools, we have met with local planners to think collaboratively about how to handle vulnerable existing development. The strategies depend on the location, obviously, ranging from relocation to elevation to protection. The full benefits and costs of each approach need to be recognized. For example, if you wall off an area to protect from sea level rise and coastal hazards, the costs are much higher than just the cost of building and maintaining the structure: loss of habitat, loss of recreational opportunity, cost of water quality impairment, loss of fishery resources…once you start adding up these costs – and evaluating how they accrue to each and every member of a community – the cost of moving or elevating the existing building (a cost that only accrues to the individual) starts to look pretty low. (Of course, the individual may take a different view).

Q:  What can the San Francisco Bay process teach other communities about planning for sea level rise?

A: The revised plan took years to develop, and I don’t think that anyone is fully pleased with the outcome. It’s definitely not the ideal plan from the conservation perspective, because it doesn’t fully protect areas that are both vulnerable and environmentally sensitive. However, I don’t think it’s ideal from the developers’ perspective either. 

The BCDC process is full of lessons for communities on how the various stakeholder interests might interact with each other in an adaptation planning effort. One lesson is to avoid a developer vs. environmentalist dynamic. Procedurally, having the development community and environmental community work together to build solutions – rather than fight against one another in meetings with the Commission – would have been more productive. Further, the agency (and the environmental community) needed to prevent at the outset the establishment of the false dichotomy – that you can have wetlands or economic prosperity, but not both. Starting the process by identifying places where you can have economic prosperity *by* protecting wetlands would have forged stronger bonds between the stakeholders and produced a stronger plan.

Q:  If sea level rise may not be a problem in some areas for 30 or more years, are there things we can do now to prepare, and why should we?

A. Even if places are not affected by sea level rise now – and many are – they are impacted by coastal hazards – storms, erosion, river flooding – and the strategies for avoiding those hazards are often the same. Green actions, such as wetlands restoration, are flexible for the future when conditions will undoubtedly change.

Furthermore, why wait 30 years to plan for something we can see coming? There is nothing more miserable than planning in the midst of a crisis, when your options are already severely curtailed. If we wait 30 years to think about this, that’s where we’ll be. Right now, we still have a relatively broad suite of strategic alternatives to choose from and the possibility of a productive dialogue with all involved to identify win-win solutions. Let’s take advantage of our foresight, rather than ignore the problem until we face a crisis.

Anne Wallach Thomas works with Nature Conservancy staff and partners around the world to collect and share knowledge about natural solutions designed and implemented to reduce the vulnerability of the world’s people to our changing climate.

Sarah Newkirk is the Director of Coastal Conservation at The Nature Conservancy in California. Her work focuses on sea level rise, preserving and restoring natural shorelines, wetlands management and restoration, and working with local and state governments to further protection of ecosystem benefits.

Photo by: Flickr user BitHead (Salt ponds in South San Francisco Bay viewed from an airplane about to land.) Used under a Creative Commons license.

Inset photo by: Flickr user Flickred! (Heron on Hayward shoreline, San Francisco Bay) Used under a Creative Commons license.

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