Press "Enter" to skip to content

Sea level rise: learning from California

When I transferred to Santa Cruz to study as an undergraduate in the Winter of 1982, I didn’t realize that I was about to witness the future. The Storm of 1982, which combined two days of torrential rains with high tides, killed 22 people, flooded the coastal town of Aptos,  and caused power outages, infrastructure damage and private property losses of over $100 million. With the lights out, knowing nobody as I had just moved to town, I strolled alone along the levee of the swollen Santa Cruz River, watching logs toss about and half-searching for cracks. I hoped it would hold fast to protect the low-rent Boardwalk neighborhood, which appeared lower than the river.

Useful principles based on experience

I immediately signed up for a Hydrology course and spent the quarter taking a first-hand tour of the storm damage led by Gary Griggs, an expert on California coastal geology who became an influential voice in environmental policy. In 2012 he co-authored (with Nicole Russell) an important guidebook: Adapting to Sea Level Rise — A Guide for California’s Coastal Communities (funded by the California Energy Commission and the California Ocean Sciences Trust). The guide provides useful principles based on hard experience like the disaster that befell Santa Cruz County. It can easily serve any coastal community, including Olympia, that faces  the profound challenge of planning for an uncertain future. Griggs and Russell set the stage by explaining how to approach the problem.

“In order to adapt to future change, coastal communities need to have an understanding of vulnerability and risk, because adaptation to sea level rise is a risk management strategy, somewhat like an insurance policy, against an uncertain future.”

How can a vulnerable community adapt?

While the entire county should be looking at risk, at least Olympia planners have taken steps to gather the information needed to perform a “vulnerability assessment” to understand the probable impacts of climate change. Yet as a community we face the problem of defining another aspect of assessing vulnerability– the ability of the community to actually adapt or respond to the effects. This requires a broader view than just asking what will happen in the flood zone.

Who should join in the conversation about vulnerability and adaptation? One suggestion Griggs made is to create a Preparedness Team, put together in a way that will assure buy-in to whatever recommendations may come out of the assessment process. Ideally this would include not just agency representatives, but also representatives of relevant community organizations, as well as consultants or scientific advisors as appropriate. Olympia is now entering this assessment phase, having taken the wise step of hiring outside experts to do the data gathering and compiling.

Develop an adaptation plan

The next phase should be planning, which means development of an “Adaptation Plan.”  This is not just a matter of describing all of the possible options for responding to future hazards—including doing nothing—but also developing clear criteria for how the options should be evaluated and recommended. After that, effective adoption of a plan can then only happen if there is ample opportunity for review, including a plan for involving the public. After all, a big part of choosing options must be deciding what the community wants to prioritize, and especially what the community most wants to protect.

Community values must be considered

It is relatively easy to think in terms of infrastructure, but there are also questions of community values.  What happens to public access to the waterfront? Are the burdens and benefits of dealing with climate change to be shared fairly? Will those individuals who are most  vulnerable, and those with the least resources to adapt without help, be given reasonable priority?

How do communities slammed by the hazards of climate change, prioritize and plan for ecosystem protection? After all, the ability to find ways to work with nature, instead of paying increasing costs to engineer for change,  will likely prove to be the most important long-term factor influencing human adaptability to climate change.

Stark new realities and maximum adaptability

Above all, how can communities develop strategies that will make them as adaptable as possible, including the very worst scenarios scientists can now imagine? In California’s 2017 Guidance Document,  a stark new reality receives very strong emphasis: the melting of the ice sheets, especially in Antarctica, makes it virtually impossible for scientists to make good predictions past the year 2030. The “probabilistic” models that have guided policy makers in the past, begin to diverge significantly after that.

The California coastal scientists proposed the following set of principles:

  • Protect human life.
  • Development and protection decisions made now, must not compromise the needs of future generations.
  • Adaptation measures should be fair about who pays and who benefits.
  • Environmental justice should be incorporated into adaptation planning.

In very practical terms, two issues come forward in the 2017 guidelines. First, no decision can be final. Both the situation and the science are changing so rapidly, it is essential to keep looking at the latest modelling. Adjustment based on new information must be built in. Planners must now plan to keep planning.

Second, lifecycle has become a very important concept. Projects should be considered on the basis of how they, and the world, will look at the end of their planned lives, not just the beginning.

Hard experience with punishing storms, as well as California’s more familiar acquaintance with dangerous earthquakes, informed other practical guidelines:

  • Plan to phase relocation away from hazard areas.
  • Don’t build public works in known zones of sea level rise.
  • Don’t subsidize development in hazardous areas.
  • Get on with retrofitting critical infrastructure.
  • Consider removing barriers to landward migration of beaches and wetlands.
  • Governments should acquire property strategically to discourage development in hazardous areas, encourage relocation, and support habitat migration.
  • Encourage alternatives to shoreline armoring.
  • Encourage human settlement in low risk areas, in ways that least compromise future generations.

None of these recommendations help with some of the hardest problems, such as how to get short-term office holders to think about long-term solutions,  how to cope with the fact that so much of the Puget Sound shoreline is in private hands,  how to get agencies to cooperate,  where to find funding, or how to allow communities to move nimbly when the regulatory apparatus is already so cumbersome or peculiar that it often doesn’t work very well even without the stress of climate change.

Giving up old categories and ways we do business

One thing is certain. We have to be prepared to give up on old categories and old ways of doing business.  Inter- agency cooperation, with the city of Olympia, LOTT and the Port working together, is a good start. But under the principles of adaptive strategy,  “Protect Downtown” is a misguided concept. A study focused only on downtown is no substitute for an assessment of the area  as a whole.  Downtown is vulnerable, that’s for sure. But there are other vulnerabilities, and other goals. As a broader community, we need to talk about that.

Disaster hit Santa Cruz County with just two days of crazy heavy winter rain and king tides. Even as I walked the levee in 1982 with a kind of abstract but thrilling dread, I could not have imagined the scale of the horror that would hit New Orleans. Now we know.  And we should know what’s going to happen here.

It has also provided a basis for an even more recent, inevitably more complex State of California Sea-level Rise Guidance Document just published in April of 2017.

Helen Wheatley is a historian, activist and writer who lives in Olympia.She serves on the Hanford Advisory Board on behalf of the citizen watchdog group Heart of America Northwest.


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Last July, when few people were paying attention, Denny Heck,…