California has emerged as a national leader in climate change mitigation through aggressive laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions. But adaptation, which involves responding to the impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise and severe weather, is unwieldy at the state level. That’s particularly true in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a dense population, waterfront location, and diverse range of cities, counties, and agencies make adaptation planning incredibly complex. Yet it’s critical that we get it right, with so much coastal infrastructure threatened by flooding, storm surges, and sea-level rise, including many of the region’s bridges, highways, airports, railways, wastewater treatment plants, seaports, and energy facilities and pipelines.
Until recently, the bulk of climate-change adaptation in the Bay Area has been piecemeal and largely conceptual. Local government autonomy continues to challenge attempts at regional coordination. But three projects are now taking exploratory steps toward a region-wide climate-change adaptation strategy, and may soon join forces.
The first, launched in July 2012, is called the Bay Area Climate & Energy Resilience Project. The project is led by the interagency Joint Policy Committee (JPC), which includes the big four in regional planning for land use (Association of Bay Area Governments), transportation (Metropolitan Transportation Commission), air quality (Bay Area Air Quality Management District) and the Bay (SF Bay Conservation & Development Commission, or BCDC). The aim of the Resilience Project is to assess the adaptation needs of diverse stakeholders in all nine Bay Area counties, including cities, special districts, and NGOs, says JPC climate strategist Bruce Riordan. “We’re talking to the folks who are doing the work — or should be,” he says. “From that we’re devising a proposal on how to structure adaptation for the region.” That includes responding not only to adverse effects like sea-level rise, but also to heat waves, water and energy shortages, and health and economic impacts. An action plan should be complete by March 2013.
The second project focuses more narrowly on sea level rise impacts on coastal areas. Adapting to Rising Tides (ART) is a partnership between BCDC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The ART project kicked off in 2010 with two questions in mind: How will sea-level rise and storms affect the Bay Area, and what strategies (ranging from collaborative planning by public and private interests to physical changes such as seawalls or relocation) will allow us to reduce and manage this risk? To begin to get a grip on these complex issues, the project opened with a pilot program assessing the vulnerability and adaptive opportunities of the East Bay shoreline between Emeryville and Union City. This 23-mile stretch contains significant at-risk infrastructure, including the Oakland Airport, the Port of Oakland, extensive ground transportation, and 30 different wastewater facilities. Once the pilot project is completed, ART will expand into other stretches of the bayshore, and eventually to a region-wide perspective. “Part of the reason to look at the problem at a variety of scales is to remind people that it needs to be solved at a variety of scales,” says BCDC senior planner Lindy Lowe. “The only way we’re really going to be able to confront this as a region is to involve all levels of governance.”
The largest, longest-term project of the three, into which the others could be folded, is also the youngest. After lengthy and contentious discussion, the JPC voted unanimously last September to take responsibility for developing a Regional Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy. According to outgoing JPC senior advisor Will Travis, the committee will coordinate the effort, driven by BCDC and ABAG staff. It could take ten years and $20 million to hash out a plan, he says, and likely billions of dollars and decades more to implement it. That’s daunting, but the consequences of inaction will be worse. “If you have flooding that affects the transportation infrastructure, it doesn’t matter if your house is high and dry,” Travis says. “It would really bring the region to its knees.” For the time being, it’s unclear where all that money will come from; only the first phase of the planning process, which involves supporting the expansion of the ART project to other parts of the region, has been funded to date. “We’re at the very beginning of a very long race,” Travis says.