Travis directed his staff to research the issue. In 2007 they handed him a report that foretold catastrophe. The agency produced maps with colorful, frightening flood projections and shared it with local policymakers. Trillions of dollars in public and private infrastructure were at risk, Travis told them. The time to prepare was now.
Yet the region’s elected officials and Silicon Valley’s cluster of high-tech firms were deaf to the urgency of his message. No one was planning for higher seas. Their problems were more immediate.
“What I heard a lot was, ‘I’m trying to get my kid into a good college, my wife wants me to lose weight, the car transmission is making a funny noise and you want me to worry about sea level rise?’ ” Travis said. “ ‘Yeah, I’ll get to that when I prepare my earthquake supplies.’ ”
He crafted a policy response for his region anyway. In 2011, after four years of scientific analysis, intense bickering, and legal fights, the commission issued what Travis described as the nation’s first enforceable requirement that all shoreline development address the problem of rising seas.
Today, with the breadth and scale of the problem known, the entire state is grappling with how to respond. Every agency and most municipalities are busily crafting plans and prioritizing projects, totaling up what will ultimately be hundreds of billions of dollars in costs to build barriers, restore wetlands and -- somehow -- raise or relocate roads, bridges, railroads and power plants away from the onrushing Pacific.
Global climate change is warming oceans and melting glaciers, raising seas higher and threatening the people and things that crowd California’s 1,200-mile coastline. Beaches are shrinking and bluffs are being pulverized. And the water’s rise, which had been somewhat steady in the past 100 years, is now accelerating alarmingly, 30 to 40 times faster than in the last century.
In as few as three decades, scientists say, some areas that are now dry will be permanently under water. Other places, miles from the ocean, will flood more regularly and more deeply, as warmer waters spawn more intense storms and the already swollen sea pushes farther onshore, unimpeded.
This winter’s lashing storms that took out parts of Highway 1 are an example of collateral damage: Rising seas are making flood-related events worse because there’s more water available to do damage. Flooding along roads is more frequent and lingers longer. Erosion from more powerful waves works away at bridge footings, undermining spans that are critical to transportation corridors, which themselves are strung along the California coast.
A report by the Ocean Protection Council, the state agency that coordinates the government’s coastal programs, was released in April with the most dire projections yet: The Pacific could rise as much as 10 feet in California in the next 80 years, covering up 800 feet of existing beach and taking out anything in its path.
Preparing for this eventuality has been declared a top priority in California. By calling for extensive scientific studies and projections, the state has thrown its full power behind the problem. But its power is not absolute. Even though the effects of rising water will be felt comprehensively, bridging public and private property and interests, some of the state’s jurisdiction stops at local borders.
State planning began in 2008 with an executive order from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was followed by Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2010 requirement that state agencies include an adaptation strategy in all planning and permitting documents. Most are still refining those plans.
The beleaguered Department of Transportation has inventoried its holdings, identified which highways will be moved back from the coast and which low-lying roads must be elevated. Highway 1, the meandering, coast-hugging byway famed more for windshield tourism than modern transportation, has been clawed at by erosion and appears often on the state’s flood maps. A section of the roadway at Gleason’s Beach in Sonoma County will be pushed back from the shore some 400 feet. Approvals for the project are expected next year.
Similar ground-level planning is under way in other agencies. The parks department, for instance, is considering relocating parking lots and restrooms away from the beach up and down the state -- although in some areas there is no room to move facilities, even if the agency could afford to do it.
The Coastal Commission has assisted California’s 15 coastal counties in preparing vulnerability assessments, which identify structures to be moved and areas where it’s too dangerous to build. The commission, which approves permits for all development along the coast, has denied the siting of a wastewater treatment plant in Morro Bay and has deemed a power plant in Oxnard to be in harm’s way.
But despite such efforts, some say officials need to be much more nimble.
The public cost of armoring the coast with sea walls and breakwaters -- not always the right response but sometimes the best short-term option -- of lifting up highways and defending airports, railways and power plants surely will be staggering. No one knows what it is. The exhaustive scientific analyses commissioned by the state don’t address cost.
State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont who chairs the Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee, would not hazard a guess at the overall cost of shoring up state-owned infrastructure.
“That would be a scary number,” he said.
For all the state’s studies, the precise details for responding to sea rise are mostly local decisions involving zoning, building codes and engineering projects with crippling costs attached.
In Sonoma County, Highway 37, built on a base of mud, flooded on 27 days last winter and has already sunk more than two feet, according to Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt. He said that the state’s transportation agency, Caltrans, told local officials that it could get to the problem in 2088.
Four affected counties, unable to wait 71 years, are considering a number of options, including putting the critical commuter highway atop a 6-foot levee. The price tag for the 20-mile project is as much as $4 billion, and no one knows who will pay for it.
Foster City, on San Francisco Bay, reckons it will take more than $90 million to shore up its eight miles of rock levees that protect neighborhoods from encroaching water.
The city of Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara, compiled this list two years ago: an estimated $7.9 million to $63.2 million to cap or recap oil wells in flood-risk areas, flood damage expected on private and public property estimated at $14 million by the end of the century, $500,000 to add four to six inches of asphalt to local roads to elevate them above the water for the next decade.
Driving across the soaring Dumbarton Bridge into Menlo Park at the south end of San Francisco Bay, Travis -- who is now a consultant -- is a grim tour guide. Where most would find serenity in the shimmering necklace of the California coastline, Travis sees an inventory of potential calamity for the state’s bridges, levees, homes and sewage plants. He points to a neat grid of commercial salt ponds that create a colorful mosaic of water behind long lines of levees. Colorful yes, but the marshes that could swell with seawater are held back only by flimsy earthen berms.
There is much at stake here, where the soggy, low-lying coast is the most heavily developed in the state. The density of people, and public and private assets, coupled with the region’s vulnerable geography, put the Bay Area at the top of the state’s triage list.
This is the gateway to Silicon Valley, formerly known as Valley of Heart’s Delight -- a reference to once-sprawling fruit orchards -- now home to Tesla, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google and Hewlett Packard. State officials are keenly aware that its critical economic driver is in the path of eventual disaster.
Adaptation projects in this region show how nature is being harnessed to hold back Pacific waters. The Bay begins with a deficit, having lost more than 80 percent of its marshes in the last 200 years, each new development gouging out some natural protection. Multiple efforts are underway to reclaim those wetlands, restoring vegetation that absorbs floodwater and slows storm surges.
Voters in nine Bay Area counties last year approved a parcel tax to raise a half-billion dollars in the next 20 years, with plans to restore tidal marshes along the bay and creeks.
More sobering for the public is the question of how to protect the international airports in San Francisco and Oakland. San Francisco airport, which, like Oakland’s, juts like a finger into the bay, has crumbling cement along its eight miles of sea wall. SFO officials are developing a $60 million shoreline protection project. At both airports, efforts will focus on buttressing and expanding existing walls and barriers.
The sea wall that rims the waterfront Embarcadero office park and promenade of shops requires a multi-billion-dollar upgrade. The Port of San Francisco is soliciting improvement proposals and has set aside $40 million for the project. The venerable rock pile is a critical bulwark: Behind it sits nearly $40 billion in commercial development.
As if those numbers aren’t staggering enough, Travis’s back-of-the-envelope calculation for protecting just the San Francisco Bay with a simple levee -- not accounting for any relocating, rebuilding or constructing more sophisticated defensive measures: As much as $100 billion. His bleak coda: The cost of doing nothing and paying to clean up the mess is four times that figure.
This is an abridged version of the full story, which is available at calmatters.org. CALmatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.