Nature on the Edge

The Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center is part of a vast network of open space assets vulnerable to sea level rise along the shore of the San Francisco Bay. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

Sitting atop stilts at the edge of the San Francisco Bay, the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center serves as a popular spot for kids and adults to learn about bay ecology. The tides rise and fall below the building every day, and director Adrienne De Ponte knows when they rise more than usual. Last year, when a high tide mixed with a storm surge, the water lapped five inches from the bottom of the interpretive center. The water came so close that De Ponte envisioned the work needed if water came into the building.

“Sea level rise is happening now. If you add storm and wind to a king tide — when the sun and the moon exert the most gravitational pull — you will get flooding,” said De Ponte.

De Ponte has been thinking about sea level rise for nearly a decade, and she isn’t alone. The notion and science of sea level rise has been lapping at the doorsteps of bayside municipalities, agencies, and communities for years.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) has been assessing vulnerabilities in targeted regions of the bay through its Adapting to Rising Tides (ART) Program. During that process the agency determined that a regional sea level rise adaptation plan was needed. Following a year of workshops to establish the scope of the proposed plan, BCDC commissioners voted in October to move forward with staff recommendations for developing it. A first draft is expected to be complete in three years, and at some point the public will have an opportunity to review and comment on it. The plan will guide, assist, and recommend specific actions, but those actions won’t be required, said Lindy Lowe, a senior planner at BCDC.

The adaptation plan is not just for airports and office developments. It will include assessments and recommended actions to protect natural areas, too. “Local and regional agencies have for decades made a significant investment in building a network of parks, trails, open space, and natural shorelines. Sea level rise is a significant threat to those assets,” said Lowe.

As global temperatures have increased beginning in the late 19th century, sea levels have risen with them, due to both the thermal expansion of warming ocean waters and the melting of glaciers. In the last 20 years, sea level rise has doubled what it was in the 20th century, and is expected to progress even faster going forward. The National Academy of Sciences projects that sea levels south of Cape Mendocino could rise as much as 12 inches by 2030, 24 inches by 2050, and 66 inches by 2100. Add wintertime storm and surge conditions, and high water events are expected to increase from 10 hours a decade today, to 1,000 hours a decade in 2100.

“Today’s king tides are tomorrow’s high tides,” said De Ponte.

The San Francisco Bay Trail is on the frontline of sea level rise. Now 70 percent complete, the recreational path will eventually run 500 miles around the edge of the bay, through nine counties and 47 cities.

“There is a lot to lose,” said Laura Thompson, the Bay Trail’s project manager. She pointed out that “in our 27-year history, sections of the trail have become part of the fabric of our communities’ recreation, environmental education, and alternative transportation.”

Thompson said that communities that manage the trail already experience flooding and temporary overtopping of levees, and she welcomes a regional plan. “The Bay Trail weaves its way through different landscapes, whether it’s a hardscape city or the soft edges of a wetland. It’s an important resource to preserve and can be part of the solution,” she said.

A key component of BCDC’s adaptation plan is collaboration between sectors, which should help with identifying solutions, procuring funding, and setting priorities. BCDC staff will determine which valued functions — such as transportation, recreation, education, or health and safety — are threatened by sea level rise. For example, at the southern end of the Hayward shoreline, these functions include the approach to the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge at California State Route 92 (transportation); the Bay Trail (recreation); the East Bay Regional Park District’s Hayward Regional Shoreline park (recreation); the interpretive center (education); and the city’s wastewater treatment facility (health and safety).

“Individual actions taken to protect these vulnerabilities separately are not going to buy a solution that will last long,” said Lowe. “What they want is to work on an integrated plan that responds to all vulnerabilities,” she explained.

The Hayward shoreline represents an opportunity to implement a solution such as a horizontal levee, a type of green infrastructure developed by the Bay Institute that uses the concept of tidal marshes to reduce the impact of storm surges. One is currently being tested just a few miles to the north by the Oro Loma Sanitary District in San Lorenzo.

“A traditional levee is not as attractive here because it is important to have access to the bay for education,” said Wendy Goodfriend, also a BCDC planner. “The Hayward shoreline has room on the landscape to set a levee back, and it’s a great place to allow nature to work for us, as well as allow it to survive and be more resilient.”

Talking About It

The plan includes a specific action to increase awareness about sea level rise, and to communicate to the public how the Bay Area can adapt successfully to its threats.

“Sea level rise is a big, intimidating thing,” said De Ponte. About seven years ago, her boss came back from a BCDC presentation in tears after looking at inundation maps, and told De Ponte that they would turn their entire focus to sea level rise.

De Ponte was resistant, and not because she didn’t believe in it. “All the scientists agree it’s not a hoax. The municipalities are all working on it. There is zero conflict,” she said. Her worry was what it would do to her programs. She knew she needed a curriculum and a model for how to talk about it — what words to use, and what words not to use. De Ponte has been working in wetlands and wetland communication throughout her professional life. She knows that she only has the blink of an eye with visitors and students, and says she doesn’t want to scare them away. She wants visitors to fall in love with wetlands, like she did.

Today there are tools to help with education and communication to the public. Entities such as the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation and the Bay Area Climate Literacy Impact Collaborative have been building up professional networks to support more effective messaging. These kinds of resources will be highlighted in the BCDC plan.

The Hayward shoreline is one of the most vulnerable areas to sea level rise. It is also ahead of the game in terms of addressing the situation.

“Some cities and regions will be able to meet this challenge better than others because of resources already in place,” said Lowe. However, she noted that in the Bay Area, “With a regional support system, the region can do the job of lifting everybody up to protect the public health and safety of all community members, and preserve our natural and built assets all along the shoreline.”

Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.