Sea level rise could flood east of Bayshore

BCDC could expand power to regulate low-lying land

The San Francisco Bay of the future will be significantly larger, rising between 4 inches to more than three feet by 2100, Will Travis told the Palo Alto City Council Thursday.

Travis, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), addressed Palo Alto leaders and a few members of the public Thursday at the invitation of outgoing Councilwoman Dena Mossar, who has served on the BCDC.

BCDC is a state agency formed in 1965 to stop the Bay from shrinking due to development built on fill. Travis recognizes the irony.

"The good news is all that Bay we lost to filling we get," Travis said. "The bad news is we have built all kinds of expensive stuff on that low lying land that is absolutely essential to life as we know it."

The grandfatherly figure with a keen sense of humor isn't planning on allowing the Bay Area to shy away from the massive challenge posed by the rising waters.

Acting on a 2006 official state climate report, the agency created a series of maps that depict the size of the Bay with an additional meter of water, a scenario Travis calls "the worst end of the best case scenario." If one of the gigantic ice sheets covering Greenland or Antarctica plops into the ocean, then the sea level will jump well over a meter almost immediately, he said.

For Palo Alto, nearly everything east of Highway 101 would be underwater, with water even stretching across the freeway to other low-lying areas. The current maps are tentative and are being refined, with revisions expected in 2008, Travis said.

"We hope the maps we produced will bring home the message that global warming isn't just a problem that's limited to penguins in Antarctica and polar bears in Alaska," Travis said.

Nothing, not even switching off all power plants and parking all cars, is capable of stopping global warming now, Travis said. During the 20th century, the Bay rose seven inches already, he said. He likened the region's position to that of the captain of the Titanic: Even though we've spotted the iceberg, we can't avoid it, Travis said.

"It's just too late, we missed our chance," Travis said.

But it's imperative to try to minimize the region's emissions by promoting high-density development amenable to public transportation, Travis said.

The Bay Area will already see a drastic increase in severe storms, wildfires and increasing Bay salinity, all critical problems that will tax the region, he said.

"We need to stop thinking about protecting the Bay and restoring the Bay to the way it was," Travis said. "Instead we need to design the Bay for the way it will be in the future. We need to engage in proactive, adaptive management."

The region needs to come up with a plan to adapt and prepare, Travis said. As part of the plan, he proposes that BCDC's jurisdiction should be expanded to include all lands likely to be inundated within 50 years, a change that would significantly alter the powers of local government, which currently control most land use decisions. A development proposal would then need the approval from a local entity, such as the City of Palo Alto, and BCDC.

Local communities would also be tasked with identifying needed levees and proposing plans to relocate non-critical low-lying development, according to a strategy document Travis distributed Thursday. The proposed plan would also list the most critical facilities, such as the San Francisco International Airport, that need protection.

"I see planning for dealing with climate change is much like dealing with seismic safety," Travis said.

The Bay Area will need to build many levees capable of withstanding both floods and earthquakes. It needs more wetlands, which act like a giant sponge capable of mitigating floods and sucking up carbon dioxide.

And that might be doable. About $100 billion of buildings, roads and other development is threatened by the water, but the cost of protecting that could be around $5 billion, Travis said. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is currently refining the estimates, he said.

Despite the challenges, Travis is optimistic.

"We have the good fortune to live in a region that is destined to be a world leader in climate change," he said.

The Bay Area has money, innovative people and organizations, the need to protect billions of dollars of threatened property and a tradition of being "politically courageous," Travis said.

"We have to succeed because there's too much at stake for us to fail," Travis said.


Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 16, 2007 at 10:33 am

"It's just too late, we missed our chance," Will Travis says. If you look at the BCDC maps on their web site, increasing water levels by one meter will flood over 101.

What he doesn't talk about is high-tide storm-surge levels, which, of course, will be much higher and sweep inland much farther.

So, even though "it's just too late", Travis advises that we, ". . .try to minimize the region's emissions by promoting high-density development amenable to public transportation."

Uh, huh. And, where, exactly, would that be? Menlo Park, on average, is about 70 ft. above present sea level. However there is a topographic slope toward the bay.

Just how far inland these waters – and by 2040, we are told – will rise under worst-case scenarios is not clear. It's an interesting problem. Some people want to run Caltrain in a trench. Wait a minute. Could floodwaters reach El Camino? Maybe underground parking isn't such a good idea. Are we going to high-density develop downtown Menlo Park for a very wet future? In short, are we really serious or are we just pretending to be serious with solar panels and bicycles? I can't get Travis' phrase out of my head, " . . . it's just too late. . ."

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 16, 2007 at 12:11 pm

After writing the statement, above, I thought more about this. We in Menlo Park have been exposed to a great deal of political attention regarding climate change over the past year.

I need to get this off my chest. Global warming is global. And, global problems are seldom solved at the local level.

There was a time, several centuries ago, when many fewer people on this planet lived in survivalist mode off the land, barely making a dent on its resources. Nature was an enemy to be conquered and controlled. Its consumption was modest. Its gifts appeared endless. Now the global population is 6 billion rising to 9 billion in fairly short order. We have won the battle against Nature, thereby defeating it. As Pogo famously said, "And the enemy is us."

So, the first order problem is people. There are too many of us. In the 21st century, civilization is so totally energy and resource dependent that we are now consuming and destroying our host planet, everything on it and everything in it. More of us will only make it worse.

The economically powerful on this planet are the beneficiaries of this consumption regime and most resistant to its reduction. What the rest of us do is trivial. Until global leaders, political and economic, actively and forcefully reduce our self-indulgent manner of living -- that to which all lesser nations aspire -- energy and resource consumption will continue ever increasing.

Even the most optimistic see no turn-around as we approach a tipping point of no return. Some feel that we have reached it already. In my opinion, all the feel good gestures, the tokenism, the pious meetings, and the political correctness amount to no more than a cosmetic palliative. We really are not serious about this, are we?

Posted by Clinging to hope, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 18, 2007 at 3:10 pm

Martin, I wish I could say you're way off base in your assessment of the problem. But I'm not ready to throw in the towel yet. Sometimes big solutions start small. There are many people who are concerned about the disastrous results of climate change, but are paralyzed because they don't think there's anything we can do individually or as a community. But the more Menlo Parks there are -- communities willing to make a committed effort to DO something -- the more models there will be for other individuals and communitites to point to and, perhaps, draw hope and inspiration from. What else can we do?

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