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Getting ready for rising seas in the Bay Area

Flickr user Wally Gobetz

In 1995, the movie Waterworld predicted catastrophic changes to the earth’s sea levels, and painted a picture of the chaos that resulted when the water rose and society collapsed.

The movie was a flop. But it got one thing right: scientists say melting glaciers are already contributing to rising sea levels, and that they’ll melt faster in the next century. Changes in the Bay Area—which has over a thousand miles of shoreline—could be dramatic.

In San Francisco, some scientists say the Bay could rise as much as five feet. That would put the water line in the middle of the financial district. In Oakland, Jack London Square could be more like an aquarium. Cities around the Bay are trying to figure out how to avoid catastrophic changes, and they’ve got some novel ideas.

Last year, Superstorm Sandy opened the eyes of many on the East Coast to the dangers of a rising ocean. Here in California, we haven’t had an event quite like that. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t thinking about it.

“Nothing focuses your mind like the sound of the gallows being built outside of your cell door,” says Larry Goldzband, director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency. “People look at other things that go around the world, other circumstances, and think: can it happen here?”

Goldzband’s Financial District office overlooks the Bay from the 26th floor. He says that nobody knows exactly how much sea levels could rise and transform the view from his window.

Here’s what we do know: for about 400 years, the Earth’s sea levels were actually going down. Then, about a hundred years ago, they reversed themselves began to rise. They’ve gone up about eight inches so far. That’s enough to make Ocean Beach a little narrower.

Goldzband cites predictions from the State that estimate something between 31 and 69 inches of sea level rise by 2100. “So basically that means two and a half to six feet,” he says.

At that rate, Oakland and San Francisco’s airports could be underwater in just decades. Tech giants like Google and Facebook, both in low-lying areas, are also vulnerable.

Goldzband’s job is to urge local governments to start planning. He says that building sea walls and rehabilitating wetlands could protect some shorelines. But other places may need more dramatic interventions.

In 2009, Goldzband’s agency sponsored a contest called Rising Tides. They asked designers and architects how to protect cities from a rising sea. One winning entry was called Folding Water.

Elizabeth Ranieri designed Folding Water with her husband Byron Kuth, and they’re working to make the concept a reality. Raineri describes the design as a “ventilated levee.”

“I think it’s interesting to see Folding Water as a reframing of a problem, which is shoreline protection,” she says. “When there’s a crisis, that levee can transform.”

Imagine standing on Pier 39 and looking out at a big basin in the middle of the Bay, not too far off shore. The basin catches water that flows in from out in the Bay, behind it. Then it pushes most of that water back out to the Bay through underwater vents. So the excess water is constantly circulating back into the Bay, while water levels around the pier remain the same.

Raineri compares Folding Water’s design to the way a pacemaker regulates blood flow to the heart.

She and her husband are currently focused on designing a levee off Richardson Bay, in Marin, and verifying sure the math and architecture of the plan. This spring, they worked on the concept with a group of UC Berkeley graduate students.

Raineri stresses that the problem is urgent: “I think that the 100-year flood is the new 20-year flood, and we cannot, we can’t rest. We have to be extremely focused on getting ahead of this. And there is time.”

But at this point, Folding Water is just an idea, and an actual levee is years away, if one is ever built.

Other projects in the Rising Tides design competition envisioned different responses to sea level rise. One project proposes beaming lasers along sites where governments might build dykes, to jumpstart a conversation about which areas need to be protected. Another would build a lock under the Golden Gate Bridge that could rise up during high tide, keeping out unwanted water. A third envisions huge “evaporation towers” that send excess water up into the atmosphere.

Like Folding Water, though, none of these projects have taken off. They are unfunded, and have no government backing. But around the Bay Area, governments are beginning to think about how rising seas will affect their shores.

At the Bear Island Marina in Redwood City, with winds whipping around and gulls flying above, Matt Seubert surveys land that could be underwater in the near future. Seubert is a planner for San Mateo County, and his job is to help the county get ready for climate change, including sea level rise.

“San Mateo County and Orange County will be the most affected by sea level rise of all the counties in California,” he explains. “And that’s because we have so much low-lying area, especially here along the Bay.”

Seubert points to that critical areas near the marina that are barely above sea level, including San Carlos airport and a women’s jail. The jail flooded during the especially high ‘King Tides’ last December. Then there’s all the other infrastructure at risk in San Mateo County, like roads and homes.

Seubert’s been working on the climate plan here for two years, and he says that sea level rise is a serious threat. But when I ask what the county is doing to protect places like where we’re standing, he’s at a loss.

“We don’t have any particular project underway here in San Mateo County,” Seubert says. Neither does the county have an official timeline or specific, planned measures to mitigate sea level rise.

Seubert says the county is reviewing restoring marshes, which act as buffer zones against the sea. It’s also considering raising levees. But planning is still in its early stages.

Projects could require buy-in from cities, the county, the state, the federal government and the US Army Corps.

“There’s a lot of overlapping jurisdiction,” is how Seubert puts it. Add the environmental review required under California law “and the planning parts of [projects] can drag out for quite a while. Years even.”

Seubert says what’s important is that the county is actively working on the problem. He says it’s early in the game, and there’s still time to find solutions.

Elsewhere in the Bay, a few projects to adapt to sea level rise are underway. In San Francisco, the Public Utilities Commission plans to spend up to $40 million building a barrier to keep ocean water out of their sewage treatment system. Construction will happen at 29 different places along the Bay, and it’s expected to take about five years

And at Oakland’s airport, a $44 million project is underway to protect the busiest runway by raising and strengthening dykes. That should be done by 2016.

Back in his 26th floor office, Bay conservation director Larry Goldzband applauds efforts to get a head start on sea level rise:

“We have this period of time now in which we need to both plan and ultimately work to protect the communities around the Bay. But that’s really hard to do! And it’s really hard to do because nobody’s done it before, and we’re sort of building the airplane as we fly it.”