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The Bay Could Soon Have Its First Region-Wide Sea Level Rise Plan. But Who Would Enforce It?

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Two women with black hair stand at the end of light sand colored patch of ground looking out onto open water, with blue sky above.
A family looks out into the bay from Cooley Landing Park in East Palo Alto on March 29, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A coalition of advocates, academics and government officials are throwing their weight behind a regional strategy to address future sea level rise.

They argue that, for the plan to work, state regulators spearheading the effort need new authority to implement it — a policy idea that many stakeholders agree is necessary, but that would require the equivalent of a political Hail Mary pass.

“We need to learn how to be a 21st-century sea level rise permitting agency and we’re working on addressing that right now,” said Dana Brechwald, assistant planning director for climate adaptation with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). She also oversees the Adapting to Rising Tides program, which seeks to help shoreline communities across nine counties plan for sea level rise.

“Our timeline is fairly short, so we have to hit the ground running,” she said.

Brechwald is leading the effort to complete the agency’s Regional Shoreline Adaptation Plan, hoping to have it completed by mid-2024 as stipulated by guidelines around more than $5 million in grant funding BCDC won from the Ocean Protection Council and the Coastal Conservancy to pay for it.

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Brechwald’s team must get buy-in from more than 40 cities and nine counties in the region, engage environmental justice communities and develop uniform sea level rise standards. The BCDC guidance will incorporate the state’s most up-to-date sea level rise models, which come out in the fall.

At the moment, preparing for rising seas is mostly a free-for-all. Counties, cities and developers are coming up with plans separately and not all to the same level of protection, which has created a patchwork of inconsistent zoning and differing interpretations of state law. Developers have been able to dodge regulations in places like Newark.

“We want to make sure we’re considering impacts on neighbors so that we don’t have this issue of one city behind a tall wall and everybody around it flooding,” said Brechwald.

Regardless of whether agency staff are able to expand BCDC’s mandate successfully, they will present a vision of what a climate-adapted Bay Area shoreline could become. But at this point, the participation of cities, counties, advocacy groups and agencies would be voluntary.

Brechwald acknowledged it takes a long time to gain consensus from local governments and residents who aren’t regularly considering the effects of sea level rise.

“The biggest challenge is ensuring that we’re not rushing so much, that our engagement seems cursory, or like we’re checking a box,” she said.

Centering environmental justice in their climate plans

Agency officials have created advisory groups of local elected officials and representatives from environmental justice communities. Some of the environmental justice advisers and consultants will draft an outreach strategy with the agency’s equity subcommittee in the coming months.

Phoenix Armenta, BCDC’s senior manager for climate equity and community engagement, works with at least six community organizations and hopes to grow that number.

“Getting down to the folks we consider to be front-line communities is one of the biggest challenges for us,” said Armenta, who took the job at BCDC after working as a regional resilience manager for the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, a prominent East Bay environmental justice organization.

Armenta said the regional plan would include direct input from communities of color and people living in lower-income shoreline neighborhoods, many of which already deal with environmental burdens like flooding and contaminated sites.

“We are collectively looking at how we can adjust our processes to reverse that trend and strengthen those communities, so they’re not the ones first hit,” Armenta said.

For the regional plan to succeed, BCDC needs to treat front-line communities as climate experts, said Julio Garcia, a BCDC environmental justice adviser and director of the nonprofit Rise South City, which focuses on climate issues in South San Francisco.

“By validating the voices of front-line communities, people of color and [non-English] speakers, we can develop something valuable,” he said.

Stakeholder concern over a voluntary approach

Many advocates, academics and officials are skeptical that this regional plan could work if it’s voluntary.

“[BCDC] trying to create one document, putting an 18-month timeline on it and build a consensus of everybody, that’s just not going to happen,” said Len Materman, chief executive officer of the San Mateo County Flood and Sea Level Rise Resiliency District.

Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, who is on BCDC’s task force of elected officials, said that in his experience, it takes decades to change policies. He agreed that the voluntary nature of the project isn’t sufficient and there needs to be an agency with regional authority to get cities, counties and property owners to take sea level rise as an imminent threat.

“There’s no real mechanism to require implementation of the plan,” he said. “BCDC has goodwill and expertise and is there to help local jurisdictions. But in the final analysis, it doesn’t have the ability to set the conditions in many areas. And I think that’s what we really need.”

A bill vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall, SB 867, sought to address the governance gap around planning for future rising tides by requiring local cities to complete sea level rise plans and submit them to the state for approval.

Newsom blocked the bill because of “lower-than-expected revenues over the first few months of the fiscal year” and said in his veto message (PDF) that bills requiring ongoing funds should be considered part of the state’s annual budget. Central Coast Democratic State Sen. John Laird reintroduced the legislation in late January as SB 272.

The Legislature formed BCDC to protect the bay from being filled in. To change its mission, established by the McAteer-Petris Act in 1965, would likely take new legislation. Will Travis, former executive director of BCDC, said he doesn’t believe there is enough political will to alter the law. He suggested the state create a different agency to enforce sea level rise adaptation across California.

“For there to be any kind of a regional strategy for dealing with sea level rise, you can’t just expect that local government by local government will do the right thing,” he said.

A first step could be to expand BCDC’s governance, from 100 feet from the shoreline to further inland, where future sea level rise will expand the shoreline, too. From a risk and flood management perspective, UC Davis professor Mark Lubell said growing this jurisdiction will prepare people for a far wetter future.

“There’s zero taste for new authority,” said Lubell, who studies governance, including sea level rise. “But regardless of how rational it might be from a risk management perspective, I just think the politics of it are currently not there. I just don’t see it happening.”

Brechwald, with BCDC, recently hired an assistant regulatory director for climate adaptation whose role includes analyzing whether or not BCDC’s jurisdiction and authority could expand under current law.

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“We don’t know what changes we’re going to make,” she said. “I think we will inevitably go to some sort of mandated adaptation plan. But starting with an incentive-driven plan might be a soft launch into the expectation in the future that everybody will be doing this.”

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