How COVID Put a $10 Billion Emergency on the Back Burner

NBC Bay Area investigation shows how COVID crippled efforts to prevent flooding damage from sea level rise.

NBC Universal, Inc.

NBC Bay Area investigation shows how COVID crippled efforts to prevent flood damage from sea level rise.

COVID-19 has stopped or stalled at least a dozen Bay Area projects designed to prevent damage from rising sea levels. And experts say time is running out, as the latest NASA readings show exponential increases in ocean and bay water levels around the Bay Area.  

“We can't afford to lose a week, a day, certainly not a year or two,” said Warner Chabot, executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, one of many Bay Area groups planning and pushing projects to cope with rising sea levels. 

“If we don't start very soon, we're going to be in a world of hurt,” said Jack Liebster, Planning Manager for Marin County, as he looked out over Stinson Beach.  

Listed by the National Park Service as one of the best swimming beaches in Northern California, with beachfront property values in the millions, Stinson Beach is also one of the most vulnerable locations in the Bay Area to the unrelenting rise in sea levels.

Over Labor Day weekend Marin County planners staked Stinson Beach with signs showing how the beach could shrink with increased erosion and permanently higher water levels. (Courtesy: Jack Liebster)

“This beach, Stinson Beach, will be, through a combination of drowning and erosion, it'll be gone,” said Liebster. In a series of signs, planted on the beach on a recent weekend, Liebster shows just how much of Stinson will be gobbled up by rising seas each decade. A Marin County vulnerability assessment, called C-SMART, warns flooding from rising seas could have a serious economic toll, impacting 1400 properties, 3,000 residents and several million visitors.

"This beach, Stinson Beach, will be through a combination of drowning and erosion - it'll be gone," said Marin County Planner Jack Liebster. Data shows the beach will flood gradually over the coming decades.

Liebster describes a plan to create a series of sand dunes that act as a sea wall, protecting homes and structures at Stinson, and at the same time feeding the beach with sand so it doesn’t erode away.  

That kind of nature-based solution will require engineering, testing, and money. Lots of money.

But a $4.7 billion bond meant to help threatened sites like Stinson Beach that had been proposed by Governor Gavin Newsom last January, was later pulled and tabled when the pandemic struck. “The bond was shelved, along with many other things, as a result of the COVID-19 recession,” said Sara Lupien, Chief External Affairs Officer for Gov. Newsom, adding, “There are no decisions yet about bonds of any kind in the Jan. 2021 budget.”

“This is going to be a huge challenge that is going to take resources at the local level, the regional level, the state level,” said San Mateo Assemblymember Kevin Mullin. Mullin’s proposed bill, AB2621, which would have protected important assets like Highway 101, Caltrain, BART lines and local residential communities from flooding. The measure sailed through several committees in the legislature and then passed on the Assembly floor by a 63 to 12 vote on June 11. But as the COVID crisis continued, on Aug. 20 the bill was tabled and held under submission in the Senate appropriations committee due to a lack of funding. There the bill died when the legislature adjourned for the year. 

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit spent the last 6 months reviewing and researching 119 different projects meant to address rising sea levels and found many directly or indirectly affected by the COVID pandemic and its shutdown of typical daily life and the economy.

Along some 400 miles of Bay Area coastline, The Investigative Unit found more than a dozen projects meant to slow, stop or protect against the rising tides - now either delayed or put on hold because of the COVID crisis and its economic impact on the tax base both locally and statewide.

Among the projects slowed or stalled:

  • Exploring ways to prevent frequent floods on Highway 1 in Marin by elevating the roadway and buildings, creating artificial reefs and sea walls.
  • Protecting a water treatment plant in San Rafael by replacing an outdated levee with a new, environmentally friendly one.  
  • The multi year, multi million dollar, South Bay Salt Ponds restoration project - the largest tidal wetlands effort on the west coast, meant to absorb rising sea levels.
Project managers of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration project explained that their work is largely funded by grants, which have their own deadlines, so any delay can delay the funding of the project.

The multi-year, multi-million-dollar, South Bay Salt Ponds restoration project - the largest tidal wetlands effort on the west coast, meant to absorb rising sea levels. According to officials, while some Salt Ponds planning work continues, most construction associated with restoration stalled due to COVID.

“Cities and counties don’t have the capacity to be thinking about these challenges,” said Rachel Ehlers, California’s Principal Fiscal and Policy Analyst, adding that, “there are other competing priorities for time and attention.  A report released in Aug. 2020, by Ehler’s office shows that a rise of six inches of water is a likely scenario in the Bay Area by 2030. That increase is based on sea level measurements from the year 2000.  

“Waiting too long to initiate adaptation efforts likely will make responding effectively more difficult and costly,” said Ehlers’ report.

Experts say time is of essence for many sea level rise projects. Scientists have plans to create natural reefs to slow down the impact of rising seas and have started building and testing some of those reefs off Pinole Point. But rising seas could make it impossible to establish the new barriers if the project is delayed too long.

Warner Chabot of the Estuary Institute estimates the economic downturn from COVID has already taken two years out of a critical 10-year window to respond to sea level rise.   

“It terrifies me,” said Chabot. “Not to have that funding is going to restrict us. It's like putting handcuffs and tying our shoelaces together.”

Denise Roldan, sitting between her partner Bert and mother Ellen at the LeMar Trailer Park in Redwood City, said everyone in the neighborhood panics each time the flood waters come. "People are scared, they don't know what to do, so they panic," she said.

The LeMar trailer park sits in a large cluster of low-income homes on a stretch of road between Highway 101 and San Francisco Bay in Redwood City. Residents here say they fell like the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to sea level rise. They’re the ones first affected when the water comes.

“It’s always living on edge. You don’t know if you’re going to wake up and you’re flooded,” said Denise Roldan, who lives here with her extended family.  Her mother, Ellen Rook, said, “They can’t just let us sit here and you know, get blown away by the water."

Though the area around LeMar and neighboring mobile home parks has flooded with heavy rains since the 1990s, historical maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency show the flood risk directly from the bay now has increased significantly with rising sea levels.  

2019 FEMA National Flood hazard map of the area in Redwood City where the LeMar Trailer Park and other mobile home parks are located. Highway 101 cuts horizontally across the frame, in the upper half of the map. While the 2012 historical map below doesn't align perfectly with the latest map, the 2019 map shows flood waters reaching well beyond the 101 freeway.

“I'm most concerned with the displacement of residents on the bay ... because they're absolutely the most vulnerable individuals in the Bay Area,” said Assemblymember Mullin.  

The latest data provided by California’s legislative analyst’s office puts the entire mobile home park under several inches of water by 2030. That’s within the next 10 years. 

Just because it's been knocked off the front pages by COVID ... doesn't mean that it's not important,” said Larry Goldzband, Executive Director of BCDC, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Water's still coming.”  

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office does point to a silver lining that has been learned from this COVID crisis. “The pandemic has taught us that we can change the status quo very quickly,” said Rachel Ehlers.

Contact Us