SFO peninsulaSan Francisco International Airport is among the infrastructure in the Bay Area threatened by sea level rise. Photo credit: Terraplanner via Flickr

By Jordan Rosenfeld

By many assessments, San Mateo County, home to 750,000 people and more than 7,100 acres of wetlands, is the most vulnerable county in the state of California to the impacts of sea level rise.

Along the famed Highway 1, erosion is chewing away at the county’s coastal edge, taking chunks of the picturesque shore that draws millions of tourists to marvel at the power and majesty of the Pacific Ocean.

But for the people who live here, the rising sea threatens far more than just the frame of a vacation photo.

“A substantial amount of our population, industry and transportation infrastructure, are all built in this area that potentially [abuts] the bay edge,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine.

The impacts seem inevitable here, as they do in Marin County to the north and to the city of Imperial Beach, hundreds of miles to the south in San Diego County. That’s why those three communities filed lawsuits in July against 37 fossil fuel companies. Their suits served as prelude to, and may now be completely overshadowed by, the suits filed on Wednesday by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland against five of the oil majors, attempting to hold them accountable for climate impacts there.  

But the first three suits definitely set the table for those higher-profile followers. San Mateo, Marin and Imperial Beach, like their bigger California cousins,  are seeking damages from the industry that climate science says is responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions that drive global warming. The impacts of climate change, the most obvious of which is sea level rise, are potentially overwhelming financially. These communities want the industry responsible to pay for the damage already occurring and the almost certain damage coming in the future.

In San Mateo County, the water threatens not just from the ocean but also rises in San Francisco Bay. There, critical infrastructure potentially under siege includes San Francisco International Airport, a heavily tracked stretch of Highway 101, Caltrain stations and a wastewater treatment plant.

“We have a number of different critical infrastructure that our whole region, state, and nation depends on,” said Hillary Papendick, the climate change and adaptation program manager for San Mateo County. “Unfortunately they weren’t really designed with sea level rise in mind.” High tides plus winter storms could prompt discharges from the wastewater plant, which could not only harm wildlife, but also infiltrates streets and expose people to unsafe water.

Even the headquarters of the Silicon Valley firm Oracle is built in the middle of tidal sloughs at the county’s southern end, where it is vulnerable to high tide flooding.  “I think the hardest part for professionals to wrap their heads around is that ultimately they are faced with abandoning many of those properties unless they can globally get a handle on sea level rise,” said Marc Holmes, director of the Bay Institute, San Francisco’s largest watershed conservation group. .

Holmes said he is not optimistic about that, noting that the California’s coast relies on approximately “2,200 miles of levees holding back the Pacific Ocean.” Levees, as everyone learned when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, are prone to fail under pressure.

While many communities have not even begun to grasp the tremendous amount of adaptation and mitigation work ahead, San Mateo County has already begun grappling with the impacts

Pacifica, Calif., has already lost apartment buildings to severe erosion. Photo credit: Daniel Hoherd via Flickr

In its beachfront town of Pacifica, several apartments have already been demolished because of erosion. Significant friction exists between the city that is trying to figure out how to adapt to sea level rise and the businesses that rely on coastal tourism.

The city hired civil engineer Bill Battalio to study the approach of “managed retreat,” the idea of yielding some land to the sea instead of continually rebuilding. The approach is vigorously opposed by the Chamber of Commerce, among others.

“If the local coastal plan is amended to managed retreat it will be impossible to repair [businesses] because the plan will prohibit it,” local Chamber of Commerce president Victor Spano said.

Chuck Gust, owner of Nick’s, a 90-year old restaurant on the beach that was opened by his grandfather, is frustrated by the idea of managed retreat. He said it is antithetical to his vision of “ a culture of sustainability,” in which businesses and property owners would have a voice in how they wish to adapt their property to sea level rise.

Nick’s has the benefit of a seawall built with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s. Nonetheless, Gust feels sea level rise gets undue attention as an issue over potential damage from earthquakes, as Pacifica sits on the San Andreas Fault. He said “fear tactics” are driving this move to pressure businesses to let go of their properties.

“If you go with managed retreat culture you’ll drive up and down the California coast with gates closed and you won’t be able to go to the beach,” he said.

Marin County

North of the Golden Gate Bridge sits Marin County, a bucolic center of environmentalism and outdoor tourism with 70 miles of ocean coastline and 40 miles fronting San Francisco Bay. It is overall much wealthier than San Mateo Country, with many of San Francisco’s priciest bedroom communities.

Marin County has a tenuous relationship with the bay and ocean. Photo credit: Franco Folini via Flickr

But the ravages of climate change take their toll here as well, and not just in well-off neighborhoods. Off scenic Highway 1, in West Marin’s coastal community of Tomales, a 108-year-old oyster business, The Tomales Bay Oyster Company, has seen a dramatic shift in the quality of the product as sea level rise and ocean warming play havoc with oysters. Retail manager Sean O’Brien, who has worked there for 10 years, finds the changes in weather “unpredictable and irregular and all over the place.”

The changing tides and increased flooding have had a direct impact on the quality of their oysters. Excessive rain causes oysters to feed more, but rainwater has none of the nutrition they get from seawater, “so they starve,” O’Brien said. Starving oysters are all shell and not a lot of meat, which is not good for business. During heavy rains, roads and property also flood. “Nobody comes out to buy oysters, so they just sit in the tanks and die, and we lose money,” he said.

Unable to control nature, O’Brien said they move their oysters around to the few sweet spots on the property where they thrive, but he fears for the future of the business.

Solving problems like those will not be an easy fix county-wide. Marin faces an estimated price tag of $15.5 billion dollars just to adapt the bay side of Marin, according to County Supervisor Kate Sears.

Marin, which has approximately 260,000 residents across a wide range of socioeconomic levels, from San Rafael’s underprivileged “canal” residents, to the vacation-home owners of Stinson Beach—already has a history of life-altering floods. Sea level rise threatens to intensify flooding, particularly if winter storms bring further atmospheric rivers, which Holmes said is likely.

Indeed, powerful El Niño storms in 2016 flooded Highway 37 near Novato, which connects four counties. It remained closed for nearly two months and cost millions of dollars to re-open, according to Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly. Flooded highways pose a problem not just for commuters but for cities like Marin City, a low-income community with only one access road. When the road floods “that community is completely trapped,” Spears said.

There’s very little in Marin that won’t be impacted, Sears said. “It’s residents and businesses. It’s public infrastructure. It’s parks and open space, and recreational areas…everything that’s an asset that can be affected by sea level rise.”

She said she is especially concerned about the speed of climate change. “What worries me is that the flooding is going to get worse much faster than a lot of our planning thinking is timed to address.” She added, “We’re looking at potential flooding of homes and businesses. That’s kind of a heartbreaking future.”

Imperial Beach

Unlike Marin and San Mateo counties, which feature a wide range of income earners, Imperial Beach is “the only low-income, high-poverty rate beach town in California,” according to Mayor Serge Dedina. The city of 27,000, which is on the U.S.-Mexico border, has a poverty rate of 25 percent. “That’s twice the county wide average in San Diego County,” he said.

The City of Imperial Beach is a rare lower-income beach town in California. Photo credit: Port of San Diego via Flickr

Dedina said 71 percent of the housing is renter-occupied, and the lowest income residences will be among the most dramatically affected by sea level rise.

Imperial Beach is especially vulnerable as it’s surrounded on three sides by water: the ocean, San Diego Bay and the Tijuana estuary and river. Just to deal with the issues of sea level rise on the beachfront side will cost an estimated $100 million, and that is just to shore up existing infrastructure.

This is frustrating to Dedina, who said he was elected on a platform of social and economic justice. He came in with goals to support social equity such as getting a supermarket to remedy their food desert, put in crosswalks and other public works. “Now I realize we’re going to have to spend all our money dealing with sea level rise and I’m not going to be able to help my long term residents who overwhelmingly voted for me,” he said.

Over the next 100 years, Imperial Beach expects about 30 percent of their roads, sewer systems, water and electrical systems, and storm drains to be overtaken by water. Last winter brought some of the highest tides the town has ever seen on its beachfront and one of the main roads, Seacoast Drive, was “semi-permanently flooded,” Dedina said.

Dedina does not believe in “passing the buck,” and takes responsibility for the crisis and said that his city “has taken a leadership role in identifying the impacts of sea level rise” for other communities who may not yet have begun to acknowledge it. He’s hopeful about the lawsuit saying, “We have a fairer chance in court than we do in nature.”

Many California coastal cities are unprepared for the forthcoming damage, said Holmes. “There’s not enough money in the world to fund all these projects.” However, a payout from the fossil fuel companies would go a long way.