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Marin County Approves Contract to Prepare for Rising Seas and Extreme Storms

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A road is submerged by water.
During a King Tide on Jan. 12, 2024, part of the San Francisco Bay Trail was under water near the Bothin Marsh Preserve. This area often floods when tides are high. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

Readying Marin County for future sea-level rise — as much as 3 feet by the end of the century — starts with reimagining how local governments think about the impact of climate change.

That’s why the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved a contract on Tuesday for a plan that could potentially restructure county government to prepare the more than 110 miles of coastal and bay shoreline for rising tides and extreme storms.

County officials want AECOM, the consulting firm awarded the contract, to figure out how to advance solutions for rising seas while best using existing staff and resources to prepare for climate effects. This could mean creating a new sea-level rise department. Residents and climate advocates argue whatever the firm comes up with must benefit communities of color, who face disproportionate adverse outcomes.

The study aims to develop “a governance structure that will unite the community,” said Ariel Espiritu Santo, an assistant county executive with Marin County, who presented on the topic.

The project will have two phases: recommending a sea-level rise decision-making model and determining how the county can fund and support the model. It will cost over $500,000 and has a late 2025 timeline.

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This project is timely because it occurs in tandem with a Bay Area sea-level rise plan due at the end of the year by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The plan, led by Dana Brechwald, is developing standards for sub-regional strategies like the one Marin may consider.

Communities on the edges of the county frequently flood during king tides and storms — and inundation may get much worse by the end of the century. In the county alone, rising tides and extreme storms could impact more than 120 miles of roads and 10,000 buildings.

Brechwald said the study could result in a new sea-level rise department like San Mateo County formed in 2020. For it to be successful, she said the county needs to protect the most vulnerable residents.

“Their lives are just as valuable as people who own multimillion-dollar properties on the shoreline,” she said.

More on Sea-Level Rise

The county plans to address equity issues within its review and mandate the consultant to create a governance structure that “lifts up the voices of those that will be most directly impacted by it,” Espiritu Santo said.

Residents in places like Marin City, a bowl of a town sandwiched between steep mountains and Highway 101 and just 5 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, are no strangers to flooding issues and have advocated for solutions for decades.

“Marin City has flooded for over 80 years,” said Marin City resident and climate advocate Terrie Harris-Green.

Creating a new department to tackle sea-level rise, however, will be complex, and Gary Griggs, a distinguished professor of sciences at UC Santa Cruz, said putting the onus on one agency to prepare for sea-level rise could be shortsighted.

“I’m a little cautious of a whole new department,” he said, especially when staff in existing programs and departments can work together to plan for sea-level rise.

The real question he asked is, “How can you bring those people together?”

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