With the advent of AB 32 and SB 375, California has adopted some of the world's leading anti-greenhouse gas laws. And yet, even according to conservative projections, certain very low-lying coastal areas may not survive.

Some of the state's most vulnerable land rings the San Francisco Bay, which is becoming a battleground in the latest round of climate change policy debates. 

The idea that sea levels are rising has been on the minds of planners and regulators in the San Francisco Bay Area since long before climate change entered the public consciousness. In 1989, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission issued a set of guidelines focused on mitigating impacts of sea level rise on bay fill projects as part of its Bay Plan. These guidelines recognized the impact of greenhouse gas emissions-caused climate change and the resulting increase in sea levels throughout the world.

Those guidelines were prescient for their time in 1989, but the idea that sea levels are rising has gained some serious scientific traction over the past two decades. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other scientists have predicted that sea levels will rise between 16 and 55 inches by 2100. These are increases that would put hundreds of city blocks and swaths of developed coastal areas under water throughout the Bay Area, from Redwood City to Oakland to Novato.

Even a 16-inch rise could partially inundate landmarks like the San Francisco waterfront, Oakland Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and vast marshy areas in the Sacramento Delta, upriver of the Carquinez Straits. Some of the area's biggest pending developments, including Treasure Island, Hunters Point, and the Alameda Naval Air Station—which are intended to be compact and eco-friendly—could lose land area even before developers even break ground.

In order to account for new estimates on just how much the sea level is expected to rise, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission has set out to update some of its rules and policies. Based on a detailed 2009 report titled "Living with a Rising Bay," BCDC staff has proposed a series of amendments to the Bay Plan that react more forcefully to projections from the IPCC. No plans for projects near the shoreline would be issued permits unless they specifically address how they will avoid any negative impacts related to rising sea levels.

"In the wake of the IPCC reports and other scientific information, it became apparent that our policies were not based on the most recent scientific information and that it would be prudent to update them," said Joseph LaClair, a planner on staff at the BCDC, which is responsible for permitting all development within a 100-foot band of shoreline throughout the Bay. Its jurisdiction covers more than a thousand miles. The proposed amendments call simply for these sea level increases to be taken into account during the planning and permitting process, and that proposed projects not pose a flood risk.

Due to its relatively narrow jurisdiction of 100-feet of shoreline, the BCDC's proposed amendments won't have an especially wide reach, though they will impact various types of shoreline development, such as certain infill projects, the creation of walking paths and redevelopment of industrial salt harvesting properties, such as Cargill's Saltworks project in Redwood City.

"The current policy was too blunt a tool to help achieve the regional vision for infill development," LaClair said. "We wanted to be in a position and have a policy that was more supportive of the sustainable communities strategy that's being developed pursuant to SB 375." SB 375 is the 2008 legislation that requires the creation of goals for greenhouse gas reduction and community strategies to meet those goals.

Though SB 375 promotes compact infill development as a way to meet demand while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the proposed new guidelines could impede, or even prevent, infill development in these shoreline areas. LaClair recognizes the irony, but argues that building even good projects in flood-prone areas is an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen.

To insiders, the proposed amendments are relatively routine; the Bay Plan is regularly amended and updated to respond to changing environmental and developmental realities. But some argue the BCDC has taken a very un-routine ideological step in relying on projections that foresee the waters of the Bay Area nearly five feet higher by the end of the century.

The amendments are currently in the public review phase, with hearings expected to wrap by the end of the year. Further revisions, based on the public comments, would then be applied, and BCDC is expecting to vote on the final amendment language by April. How much that language changes between then and now is still unclear, but there are two loud voices in the Bay Area's development scene that are doing all they can to make sure the edits are significant and the reach of the amended plan is reduced.

"It appeared to us as being overly regulatory and prescriptive," said Ellen Joslin Johnck, executive director of the Bay Planning Coalition, a non-profit that advocates for the balanced use and regulation of the Bay Area. Along with another business-sponsored public advocacy organization called the Bay Area Council, the Bay Area Coalition submitted comments to the BCDC about the proposed amendments to the Bay Plan advising against their adoption.

The two groups believe the amendments, as they stand, give too much regulatory power to the BCDC, and should instead be replaced with a set of guidelines that advise on how projects should react to the possibility of rising sea levels, rather than imposing restrictions on what they must do. Regulatory rules, they argue, should be developed by a coalition of the various local, state, and federal agencies -- a list that includes the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, local and state water boards, and many others.

"The whole subject of sea level rise really needs to be undertaken, in terms of guidance and land use planning, with a broad range of state and federal agencies and property owners around the Bay," Johnck said.

That's a desirable goal, according to David Lewis. He's executive director of Save the Bay, a regional organization focused on protecting and restoring the Bay Area and its various ecosystems, and while he sees merit in Johnck's suggestions, he also sees an effort to steamroll the process.

"There's a clear attempt to delay any significant restrictions," Lewis said. "They're trying to discourage [the BCDC] from doing what is in its jurisdiction, what it's actually required and responsible for doing."

Lewis expects the amendments to be approved, but cautions that further extensions of the public comment process for amendments that were first drafted in April 2009 could allow potentially hazardous projects to slip through the cracks -- and into the line of a rising tide.

"What BCDC's proposing is modest and very important," said Lewis, "The opposition to it has bordered on hysterical and has emphasized false fear."

For a state commission that typically sees about five major permits and about 30 to 40 minor ones a year, the impact of these amendments isn't as far-reaching as some might assume. He does hope other jurisdictions and coastal areas will follow their lead, but contends that even without these explicit rules, the developers have sea level rise on their minds. He points to the Treasure Island Development Authority, which is planning a massive mixed-use development on the man-made island built inside the Bay in the 1930s.

"Over the past couple years, we have been working collaboratively with BCDC both on our approach and in responding to their proposed Bay Plan amendments," said Michael Tymoff, deputy director of redevelopment at the Treasure Island Development Authority. The project is planned to address sea level rise of 36 inches initially, and can be upgraded to handle additional levels of rise as they occur, according to Tymoff.

"Our strategy is very much in line with the direction of BCDC's proposed amendments," Tymoff said.

But for others, without hard rules, long-term concerns like sea level rise may not have much sway in the face of short-term realities like project costs.

"There's a question though as to what scenario you want to pick," said Johnck, referring to the range of sea level rise by the end of the century. "Do you want to build your dock to plan for a 55-inch rise or a 16-inch rise? What if you don't have the money to build a dock high enough to accommodate a 55-inch rise when that's not supposed to happen until 2100?

"People should plan for the future, but how far out do you plan?"


Contacts & Resources:

San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission Climate Change Bay Plan Amendment 

Joseph LaClair, Chief Planner, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission


Ellen Joslin Johnck, Executive Director, Bay Planning Coalition 415.397.2293

David Lewis, Executive Director, Save the Bay 510.452.9261

Michael Tymoff, Deputy Director of Redevelopment, Treasure Island Development Authority  415.554.7038