Rising sea level to have detrimental impact on Bay Area coast

Bay Area cities are attempting to adapt and innovate local infrastructure in order to prepare for the consequences of climate change.


A cool, characteristic fog hugs the orange-toned bridge, which stands proudly over a bay of calm, glistening water. The water beneath it lightly laps the shore, creating a bed of salt deposits between the frigid bay and the peninsula that juts out into it.

The San Francisco Bay accommodates a plethora of wildlife, numerous regattas, an infamous prison, an angelic island. Despite its seemingly harmless facade, this body of water leads into a larger, much more volatile body, giving it the potential to change the lives of the seven million people residing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Although it has been long confirmed that sea levels are rising at an increasingly rapid rate, the exact impact and gravity of the situation has not been determined. Most scientists expect a 2.5-foot rise in the global sea level in the next one hundred years, but sea levels could rise up to 6.5 feet in the next century, according to a comprehensive study by the National Research Council.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that a two-foot rise in the global sea level, the minimum amount expected in the next one hundred years, would result in a 2.3 foot sea level rise in New York City, a 2.9 foot rise at Hampton Roads, Virginia, a 3.5 foot rise at Galveston, Texas, and a one-foot rise at Neah Bay in Washington state.

But what does this mean for California? How could this impact the Bay Area? According to a report by the National Research Council, geological forces are forcing California's coastline to sink, so the rising sea level will have a larger detrimental impact on California coasts that on other states that border the Pacific coast. In the Bay Area specifically, there is the potential for a two-foot rise in sea level in the next 40 years.

"The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) has issued a prediction for 2050 [for the rise in sea level in the Bay Area]," NASA Ames scientist, Max Loewenstein, said. "They are predicting a sea level rise of 16 inches which is an extreme value but that's what they're using." 

Although most Bay Area citizens do not currently have to deal with the direct effects of changing sea levels, it could quickly become a pressing issue for residents in the upcoming decade. In fact, many non-residential areas at and below sea-level in the Bay Area are already experiencing the effects of rising tides. 

"I don't think [the rising sea level] is affecting people now," Executive Director of BCDC, Steven Goldbeck, said. "I think that will happen in the future. [BCDC] studies show that up to a quarter million of the Bay's residents could potentially be subject to flooding in the hundred-year sea level rise... There are low-lying areas that are already flooding. There's an area in Marin along the shoreline that floods at extreme high tides and even along the San Francisco waterfront by the Ferry Building there is flooding during winter storms."

Cities around San Francisco Bay are aware of the impacts of climate change and many are in the process of generating plans for adapting to the continually rising sea level. However, since inundation of most residential and metropolitan areas in the Bay Area is not expected to occur for many years, no direct action has begun to take place.

"[Cities] don't have the resources to do all the work right now so I don't think that very many of the cities are fully prepared," Goldbeck said. "Right now [the BCDC] is working with the cities along the Alameda County in the East Bay on the Adapting to Rising Tides project and we're working with them to assess their vulnerability and start looking at potential adaptation actions. [Cities] need to plan now and in many cases what they will need to do is build later. Many areas won't be inundated for decades and so it doesn't make sense to build extensive levees and structures now that won't be needed until later.

According to Goldbeck, the most practical actions to be taken right now involve bolstering current structures and ensuring that new projects are built to be resilient to future coastal flooding and sea level rise.

"There are a lot of new projects that are being built in areas at risk and if you build them now in such a way to be resilient in the face of those risks, it's usually a lot cheaper than having to retrofit them down the road," Goldbeck said. "That might just mean leaving space along the waterside on land to [later] build a levee. The impacts are coming so planning has to happen now. It should have started happening a while ago."

The city of San Jose is an example of a metropolitan area that will begin reinforcing their flood-protection structures now in a way that will also protect the city in the future against the impact of rising water levels. 

"Much of downtown San Jose is below sea level today and the levees around the salt ponds down there are what are protecting San Jose from flooding today," Goldbeck said. "It makes sense to bolster those levees now to make sure that the city of San Jose is safe today while protecting them from the future flooding as well. Senator Diane Feinstein announced the initiative to do just that recently." 

Like San Jose, the first step Palo Alto will take in order to adapt to the rising sea level involves repairing the current levee system that protects the Palo Alto Baylands from flood.

"The sea level is going to rise up against [Palo Alto] Baylands and we have a levee system there that is of varying quality," Palo Alto's Assistant Director of Public Works Phil Bobel said. "Some of it actually was not built as a levee. It was built to carry a road and we count on it as a levee. We know looking forward that we would need a real thorough study of our current levee system and we know it needs to be upgraded. What lies ahead is a thorough analysis in the design and then obtaining funding and then actually building new levees."

Palo Alto is participating in the Shoreline Study for San Francisco Bay, which is a regional study conducted by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Historically, the Corps of Engineers has had the principal mandate over protecting the Bay Area from rising water.

"The Corps of Engineers has an ongoing study about providing levees to protect communities around the Bay Area but as far as I know there isn't a project underway and there isn't funding for that, but it's certainly under extensive study," Loewenstein said.

However, due to its lack of funding, Palo Alto cannot rely on this project to produce results in the near future.

"The only problem is that [the project] is under-funded and it's not going to produce results in the Palo Alto area very soon," Bobel said. "There is a second effort underway which is by a more local agency called the Santa Clara Valley Water District. One of its missions is flood control or flood protection. Those same levees that protect against floods would also be useful against sea level rise so [the Santa Clara Valley Water District] has indicated a willingness and is seeking funding to do the same work that the Army Corps of Engineers is doing, except the Corps of Engineers has not got the funding to [produce results] in the near term. We're hoping that the Santa Clara Valley Water District finds money sooner than the federal government so we can get working on [the levee system] sooner rather than later."

The Bay Area is world-renowned for being innovative and cutting-edge, but when it comes to preparedness for rising waters, the Bay may be lagging behind.

"I think we are behind in what we need to be doing [to prepare for the sea level rise] but we do what we can," Goldbeck said. "That's why we're saying new projects should be built to be resilient and cities and counties should all be planning now as to how they're going to be addressing coastal flooding and sea level rise in the future."

More on Kira Krasnow.

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