PD Editorial: Time to get serious about rising sea levels

With triple-digit temperatures in the forecast for the next several days, it might seem strange to be talking about flooding. But this week brought two sobering reminders that California isn’t prepared for rising sea levels.

First, researchers from Stanford University said that the North Bay could experience the worst traffic backups in the Bay Area as the region’s highways become increasingly prone to flooding.

The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst followed with a warning that a laser-focus on the coronavirus pandemic could leave California ill-prepared for economic hardships that will accompany climate change and rising sea levels.

“It's quite tempting, justifiably, to just focus on those immediate concerns,” Rachel Ehlers, a principal fiscal and policy analyst with the legislative analyst’s office told Capital Public Radio. “But because we know this is looming on the horizon, we just want to ensure that the Legislature and the public keeps an eye on this for the future.”

This week’s heat wave may be unrelated to climate change, but a warming planet is undeniably responsible for rising seas.

For now, the increase is being measured in inches. Before long, it will be measured in feet.

Sea levels globally have risen about 8 inches since 1880. In California, sea levels are projected to rise 6 to 9 inches in the next decade and as much as 7.1 feet by the end of the century, with storm surges, exceptionally high “king tides” and El Niño weather events causing periodic flooding.

The legislative analyst’s report, which compiled data from several studies, says $8 billion to $10 billion of existing property is likely to be underwater by 2050, with $6 billion to $10 billion more threatened by periodic flooding.

A 4-foot increase in sea level would cause daily flooding for about 28,000 residents in the Bay Area considered socially vulnerable due to factors such as limited income and access to vehicles. Nearly a half-million residents statewide would be affected by a 6-foot increase.

Public infrastructure also is threatened. In the Bay Area, 59 miles of highways and bridges, 48 miles of freight rail lines, 20 miles of passenger rail lines, 11 acres of ferry terminals, 780 acres of seaports and 4,670 acres of airports would be exposed to flooding with a sea level increase of 4 feet.

“Such flooding could render this important infrastructure unusable for extended periods of time — or, in some cases, permanently — and require costly repairs or modifications,” the legislative analyst’s report said.

Even a relatively small increase in sea level will cause traffic tie-ups in the Bay Area.

A 12-inch increase would add a half-hour to the average commute, the Stanford researchers concluded, with the North Bay especially vulnerable because there are few alternative routes.

Highway 37, which connects Highway 101 and Interstate 80 across the top of the bay, already experiences flooding during winter storms. It would be permanently inundated by a 3-foot increase in sea level, which is projected by the end of the century.

Four North Bay counties are collaborating on plans to protect Highway 37 from rising seas, but work isn’t expected to begin for a decade or more, and even the planning money has been tied up in a legal dispute over Bay Area bridge tolls.

A heat wave will pass, but the need to prepare for rising sea levels will not. Fixes for infrastructure and other property won’t be easy or cheap. But the longer we wait, the harder and more expensive the solutions will be.

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