Sea Level Rise, Infrastructure, Wetland Buffers, Be the Street The tone of the speechmaking changed when Carl Guardino stepped to the podium for Tuesday’s second morning session. Suddenly the audience was listening not to insider views of science and government, but to an outsider alarmed by the uncertainties of climate change. “It’s our job as CEOs not to cheer or jeer, our job is to get into the game and move the ball forward,” said Guardino, quoting legendary Hewlett-Packard CEO David Packard. As President and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy trade association of more than 390 Silicon Valley companies, Guardino seemed a little uncertain at first facing the crowd of environmentalists. But he soon warmed to his subject.
He acknowledged that projected flooding presented a significant threat to homes, businesses, and infrastructure at the water’s edge, and noted that the South Bay seemed particularly vulnerable. He said a major storm could put hundreds of thousands of people and tens of billions of dollars in assets at risk, and directly impact what he called “the innovation economy.” As he put it, “It’s enlightened self interest to be mindful of the impacts without having to go through an experience like Hurricane Sandy. The Bay Area business community needs to engage, we can’t wait for Sacramento or Washington.” Guardino presented photos of mayhem in New York, and weak levees in the South Bay that would be no match for a Sandy-sized storm. He mentioned that wetlands help protect shoreline assets, and pledged support for shoreline protection efforts already underway through a new CEO task force. With a smile, he invited the audience to add their names to a “thank you partners” slide up on the big screen that was already crammed with logos. “There’s no ‘or’ anymore between ‘economy’ and ‘environment,’ let me be clear,” he closed.
The next speaker explored climate change uncertainties from a different perspective—that of a water supplier to nearly 2 million residents and businesses in the Silicon Valley. Linda J. LeZotte, a director at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, cited a state report identifying Santa Clara County, along with Los Angeles and Orange Counties, as having the highest potential for future flood damage in California. Some shoreline portions of the county lie as much as 13 feet below sea level, and others host residential subdivisions, urban zones, high-tech companies and the largest wastewater treatment facility in the Bay Area, she said. Most built shorelines are protected from the Bay by substandard levees or fledgling wetlands.
To address this risk, LeZotte said, the water district is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coastal Conservancy on the South San Francisco Bay Shoreline Study. This congressionally authorized study is investigating the potential for flood risk management and ecosystem restoration improvements along the bayshore between Palo Alto and Milpitas. “At $125 million, this is not going to be cheap,” said LeZotte. President Obama’s budget includes the project, but the non-federal cost share is $56 million. The water district’s Safe, Clean Water measure, passed in 2012, includes $15 million for its share of initial project construction, and another $5 million to conduct studies of additional areas. Non-federal sponsors will make up the balance through credits derived from the value of the salt ponds.
LeZotte also detailed some challenges. For example, without authorization, the Army Corps is not allowed to do ecosystem restoration on lands owned by other federal agencies such as the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which controls much of the South Bay shore including salt ponds surrounding the town of Alviso. “Alviso is a priority—we need to replace non-engineered levees before a disaster happens,” she said.
After the opening talks, the conference moved on to a panel of representatives from federal, state and local entities. Panelists made brief introductory remarks to get things rolling and audience inspire questions about regional wetlands restoration and flood protection challenges. Save the Bay’s David Lewis started by urging the public at large not to take the Bay for granted. “We live in a very wealthy region—we have a public that cares and a public with resources. I hope the new SF Bay Restoration Authority [can channel some of this local wealth into our shoreline projects], because the Bay is not getting a fair share of federal resources compared with other estuaries,” he said.
After Lewis, City of San Jose Environmental Services Director Kerrie Romanow described how San Jose is spending $700 million to rebuild the region’s largest regional wastewater treatment facility to better serve 1.6 million South Bay residents and protect the health of the estuary. “After rebuilding it, we really want to make sure sea level rise doesn’t put it underwater,” she said, which is partly why San Jose has been investing in a buffering wetland on a nearby salt pond.
Next, State Coastal Conservancy Director Sam Schuchat said he was looking forward to reintroducing Bay waters to the massive restoration site at the former Hamilton Army Airfield sometime next year. “This is [one of the prizes of our success] in piecing together funding from so many different sources,” he said. In the future, he hopes the Restoration Authority, with a per-parcel tax of not more than $10, will create a more stable mechanism for collecting funding for wetland restoration, flood control and water quality projects. “We need all your time and all your money to make this happen,” he said looking right at the audience with a smile.
Panelist Lieutenant Colonel John Baker, District Engineer for the US Army Corps, ended the panel’s introductory remarks by pointing out that few people know the Corps has been involved in the security and safety of the nation’s waterways for more than 200 years.
The audience had many questions for the panel. Asked where “the big opportunities” are for strong climate change adaptation, David Lewis had a quick answer: “Where imminent restoration abuts infrastructure, like the wetlands around Facebook headquarters and Highway 84.” Romanow suggested areas around wastewater treatment facilities, and Schuchat the Hayward Shoreline. “Every marathon starts with a mile. We have to identify places where we can have small victories, [obvious] win-wins,” said Baker.
Another question concerned progress on a regional adaptation strategy on sea level rise. “There isn’t one,” said Schuchat. “But there is an evolving consensus about using natural solutions where we can. Where we can’t, we’re probably going to have to build some big honking levees.” While having a regionally coordinated strategy would be desirable, Lewis felt it was unlikely that anyone could get nine different counties to agree on what that might be. “It’s better to work with particular cities interested in setting a high bar for others to match,” he said. For Baker, however, piecemeal action might prove problematic. “Without a regional strategy, it is more difficult for an area to be prioritized by federal government for Corps involvement.”
In a third question, someone asked for more details about the 2014 regional ballot measure that would fund the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority. Schuchat said a proposed parcel tax on the ballot could provide $15 million over ten years for the Authority. “A million here, a million there, and we’re talking real money,” said Schuchat. Santa Clara voters have already approved $20 million for South Bay shoreline flooding projects, said LeZotte. Lewis added that the region still needs to make a better case for more federal funds to come to San Francisco Bay. Baker reminded the audience that the federal government doesn’t have such deep pockets anymore. He said the Corps has to tackle a $60 billion backlog in harbor and waterway maintenance projects nationwide with a 2014 budget projected at just $4.7 billion. One thing needed to free up federal funding, he said, is to convince regulators to be more flexible with what the region does with dredged sediment. Once a waste product, dredged material is now a precious resource in the fight to keep shorelines abreast of sea level rise. “We’ve had some success pairing navigation projects that create mud with restoration projects that need mud,” said Baker.
Sediment may be a scarce resource, but so is horizontal space needed for wetlands to move inland and buffer developed areas, the topic of another question for the panel. One way to get more space would be to expand offshore rather than onshore, and create wetlands in areas that are now open water, said Schuchat. “But that would require substantial and controversial changes in BCDC ‘no-fill’ policies,” he said. Another way is to buy out willing sellers in the flood zone, which New York has been doing post-Sandy. “If there’s no room for horizontal levees, then they have to go vertical,” said the Corps’ Baker. “But you don’t keep building in a place that keeps flooding. I come from Texas, and even there that’s the definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and hoping for better outcome,” he said to a round of hearty applause.
The final question for the panel was whether state and federal regulatory processes help or hinder planning for sea level rise. San Jose’s Kerrie Romanow said both were true. “In some ways they’re providing planning assistance. In others they’re getting in way with challenging requirements. But we find when we spend face-to-face time with them, we [manage] to achieve our goals together,” she said. One longstanding regulatory tool may no longer be relevant. “Single species restoration is brain dead in the era of climate change,” said Schuchat. Traditional flood protection regulations and approaches also need an overhaul as the sea laps ever higher on our shores, and extreme storms pour more water faster through our watersheds. Santa Clara’s water district is already in the swim: “We don’t build concrete channels any more,” said LeZotte. “When feasible we remove them. The day of concrete channeling streams is over.”
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Be The Street
Nick Laurrell was living in Costa Rica and promoting online gambling with his Internet and crowd-sourcing skills before he got a gig leading Bay Area anti-litter campaigns. “I use my black magic for white magic purposes,” said Laurrell at the conference. Rather than producing his own PSAs, he invited 14- to 20-year-olds to create and submit their own videos to his “Be the Street” contest. Laurrell targeted this demographic because statistics suggest that young people disproportionately contribute to the littering problem. More than 51 videos were submitted. “We got awful ones and we got great ones, but it was not about the quality of the videos, it was about the quality of the participants,” said Laurrell.