Will California get past stalemate on development-related environmental issues before the world as we know it ends?

Sorry about the apocalyptic reference, but it is common these days in discussions about global warming – and with good reason. If predictions about the impact of global warming are even half right, a lot of us are going to be quite literally swimming – or at least wading – through our daily lives in 30 or 40 years.

Yet in the current debate about how the state should approach "adaptation" strategies, all parties are crouched in their typical postures. The state has released a sweeping game plan that's ambitious but not very specific. The enviros are complaining that it doesn't go far enough. The developers are complaining – in terms almost as apocalyptic as global warming activists use – that the plan overreaches and serves as just another excuse for land use activists to promote their agenda. And the planners (serving, apparently, as a proxy for the silent local government groups) are complaining that the state isn't going to provide any money.

I suppose it's inevitable that, in tough times when a new issue arises, the interest groups retreat to their typical party lines. But you'd think we're past this in California. The state has had 40 years of political jockeying over development and environmental issues. Things are not perfect, especially now, but in general there has been a pretty compelling balance of innovative environmental protection and innovative urban development. So it's too bad we're back at square one on adaptation.

The current ruckus began a year ago, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order instructing the Natural Resources Agency – in combination with several other state agencies – to draft a game plan for climate change adaptation. As I wrote in a blog from the state planning conference a few weeks ago, adaptation gets very little play – even among planners – compared with greenhouse gas emissions reduction efforts. This is too bad. The threat is very real; even a minor increase in the sea level would inundate dozens, if not hundreds, of crucial roads and sewer plants, to say nothing of schools, stores, and houses. From the point of view of planners, adaptation is something that will have to happen, and communities across the state face some pretty fundamental choices (hard versus soft infrastructure, for example) in going about it.

The draft California Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (see CP&DR In Brief, August 15, 2009) has succeeded in focusing the attention of Sacramento insiders – if not planners and developers across the state – on these hard choices.  In some ways, this 161-page document is very deft. It devotes a lot of time and attention to making the case about why adaptation is important and what some of the sea level rise scenarios might be. And the proposed strategy itself, while ambitious, is fairly general – and this is probably deliberate.

On the potentially explosive topic of land use, for example, the strategy's main recommendation reads like this:

Consider project alternatives that avoid significant new development in areas that cannot be adequately protected (planning, permitting, development, and building) from flooding due to climate change. The most risk-averse approach for minimizing the adverse effects of sea level rise and storm activities is to carefully consider new development within areas vulnerable to inundation. State agencies should generally not plan, develop, or build any new significant structure in a place where that structure will require significant protection from sea level rise, storm surges, or coastal erosion during the expected life of the structure. However, vulnerable shoreline areas containing existing and proposed development that have regionally significant economic, cultural, or social value may have to be protected, and infill development in these areas should be accommodated. State agencies should incorporate this policy into their decisions, and other levels of government are also encouraged to do so.

The recommendation says nothing about what local governments should do, and it provides very general guidance for state agencies, which are exempt from local government planning regulations. It's not nearly as specific as some of the other recommendations, such as the one that sets a target for a 20% reduction in water use by 2020. It's also, in many ways, a mere restatement of many other existing state policies.

Careful, cautious, general, and redundant – and therefore the perfect target from all sides.

It is predictable, of course, that the environmentalists – represented most aggressively, in this case, by the sharp-elbowed but skilled and effective Center for Biological Diversity – would say the strategy doesn't go far enough. The Center's 13-page comment letter says the recommendations are "too general to be meaningfully analyzed by the public and largely lack commitments or directives for action by the relevant state agencies to implement the actions." (All the comment letters can be found here.)

Typically, the Center does not focus directly on land use and urban development but, rather, on protecting and restoring ecosystems and habitats. Among its goals is to restore degraded wetlands that might otherwise be available for urban development as a means of providing "resiliency" – meaning, in this case, ensuring that wetlands are resilient enough to absorb and purify a lot of the water that is draining into newly risen estuaries and rivers.

Even more interesting is the equally long comment letter from a coalition of business and development groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Building Industry Association, the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, the California Business Properties Association, and the American Council of Engineering Companies, California. Whereas the enviros criticized the strategy for being too general, the business/developer coalition criticizes it for being too ambitious – and uses biting words in many cases.

Not surprisingly, some of the sharpest words are aimed at the land use recommendation reprinted in its entirety above. The business/developer coalition's letter calls the recommendation "redundant, hyperbolic and nonsensical." The letter goes on to say:

"The state shouldn't be determining where building should occur or where it should not." Instead of new guidance from the Natural Resources Agency on adaptation, the business/developer coalition suggests relying on existing state and federal laws relating to the flood risk, which already tell local jurisdictions "what can be built and how it should be built in areas that are at some flood risk – regardless of the source of the risk."

Secondly, the business/developer coalition says that new guidance is not necessary because this kind of analysis already gets done through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Ah, CEQA. In keeping with the theme of this column – nothing new under the sun – it's pretty obvious that in the end this will come down to a CEQA fight. The business/developer coalition points out that CEQA "already provides the appropriate framework for disclosing the full range of climate change-related impacts for which reliable scientific evidence is available, and a mechanism for mitigating them as feasible."

In theory, this is true. Any CEQA analysis could look at the possibility of future inundation and suggest mitigation measures, including moving the project to another location. But local agencies have been very skittish and uncertain about how to deal with climate change in CEQA documents, and they're banking on the state to tell them how to handle climate change in the pending CEQA Guidelines changes, authorized by SB 97 and now out for public review.

However, the SB 97 guidelines changes don't say anything about sea level rise and adaptation. The guidelines deal exclusively with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So, for now, the whole issue of adaptation has boiled down to a typical fight over how to use CEQA. Not suprising, but pretty disheartening. Keep your life vests nearby.