INVESTIGATIVE

‘Unlike Any Disaster We Have Ever Seen,’ Says State Agency About Rising Seas in Bay Area

Using the latest data available, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission predicts devastating impacts of rising seas to the  Bay Area - on housing, transportation, economy and jobs.

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An investigation by NBC Bay Area has found more than two dozen major construction projects worth billions of dollars - either recently completed or still in development - located in areas along San Francisco Bay that scientific computer models show will be flooded or surrounded by water by 2050 or earlier.

The developments include everything from retail and office buildings, to entertainment facilities and housing developments.

The municipalities that gave permission for these developments, in some cases, now acknowledge that their location is problematic and say that taxpayers will likely have to help pay to mitigate, insure or otherwise fix the problem that scientists have known is coming for years.

Development Projects at Risk of Future Flooding

This map shows areas that may be at risk of flooding if sea levels were to rise between three feet and, under certain conditions, seven or more feet by the end of the century. Scientists project that sea levels could rise 12 inches in the Bay Area as early as 2030. With a moderate five-year storm, total water levels across the Bay Area would reach 36 inches above the levels measured in the year 2000. By 2100, climate models now point to a potential 66-inch sea level rise. When coupled with storm surge, that can create a total water level increase of seven feet.

Source: NOAA, City Planning Departments: Foster City, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Oakland, San Francisco, San Mateo
Credit: Sean Myers/NBC Bay Area

“The Bay Area is at a tipping point,” says a new state report, titled “Adapting to Rising Tides,” or ART, referring specifically to oncoming sea level rise.   NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit obtained an early copy of the report, which is scheduled to become publicly available in March 2020. Based on the latest data from climate scientists, the ART report warns that unless a comprehensive Bay Area-wide plan is put in place soon, life in the Bay Area will change dramatically with rising water levels. Research on the 730-page document was led by the SF Bay Conservation and Development Commission or BCDC. 

“We are at a crisis point,” said Zach Wasserman, chairman of the SF Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

“If we do not act now, we will not be able to build the infrastructure...that is necessary to save our people, our natural environment and our built environment,” Wasserman said. 

The ART report identifies more than a dozen different communities around the bay in danger of permanent flooding in a couple of decades, including West Oakland. 

“You see all the water right here?” said 73-year-old Margaret Gordon, as she drives us around her neighborhood in West Oakland.  

Miss Margaret, as Gordon likes to be called, has been an advocate for disadvantaged communities for decades. She’s worried about what the incoming water might mean for those disadvantaged folks currently living in West Oakland.  “This might end up underwater too,” Miss Margaret said.  “You see all this new housing?” It, she says, will likely be impacted in a decade or so.

According to the latest scientific models, the area around Gordon’s home in West Oakland could see the sea level rise several inches in just a few decades. Miss Margaret said more than 24,000 residents have no place to go when floodwaters come. “All these people could be displaced,” she said.  “We may never come back.”

According to several state reports including one from 2018, climate scientists expect that—relative to the year 2000—sea levels could rise at least 6 inches and as much as 12 inches in the Bay Area by 2030.

See State of California 2018 Sea-Level Rise report here.

Communities that face critical risk, according to Adapting to Rising Tides report:

  • Corte Madera
  • Downtown Oakland
  • East Palo Alto
  • Emeryville
  • Martinez
  • Mountain View
  • North San Jose
  • Oakland Airport
  • Richmond
  • SF Bayview
  • SF Mission Creek
  • SF Embarcadero
  • West Oakland

“It’s a slow-moving emergency,” Wasserman said, adding “The bay will rise anywhere from three to six feet by mid-century, 30 years. It will rise anywhere from five to 10 feet or more by century's end.  “Using the state data our team created maps showing what a 12-inch sea-level rise with a typical 5-year storm would look like—what planners say Bay Area planners, developers and residents should prepare for by 2030.

In San Mateo County parts of Highway US 101 go underwater and SFO’s runways are covered with water. The airport already plans to build seawalls but even so, according to the models, SFO itself could be left surrounded by water. In Menlo Park, the same computer models show that Facebook’s campuses could become islands.

Flood Risk: Facebook West Campus in Menlo Park

The graphic below shows how a moderate 5-year storm in 2030, 2050 and 2100 could cause flooding in neighborhoods bordering the San Francisco Bay. Sea level estimates are based on a 2018 state report, “Sea Level Rise Projections for California,” which projects up to one foot of sea level rise in 2030, two feet in 2050 and seven feet in 2100. A five-year storm accounts for two additional feet of sea level rise in each of those scenarios.

Source: NOAA, Google Maps
Credit: Sean Myers/NBC Bay Area

The ART report is the first project of its kind to look specifically at sea level rise and its impacts across the entire San Francisco Bay Area. The report identifies more than two dozen key “hotspots” which could be affected by flooding, focusing on transportation networks, vulnerable communities, areas where future development is planned, and natural lands. 

Without a plan in place, “stuff's going to get wet and people are going to be hurt, and that's really what I'm most concerned about,” said Larry Goldzband, executive director of BCDC. Goldzband points out that the new ART report is a worst-case scenario, but stresses that this bleak picture is an important guideline in avoiding temporary or permanent flooding. 

“You're going to have water coming in and you're going to have housing stock that won't be able to recover,” said Goldzband, “and you're going to have communities that won't be able to recover...because those people are going to move out or they're going to move away.  It means they're not going to be able to get to their jobs. So, you're going to have huge amounts of dislocation, economic dislocation and social dislocation,” he said. 

But despite these warnings, our investigative team found that development in potential flood zones continues.

The cost of repairing or rebuilding may fall not on the developers who constructed these facilities, but on the taxpayer.  That’s because of a 2016 change to California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, as it’s known. The California Building Industry Association argued before the California Supreme Court that CEQA, with a few exceptions, did not apply to the environment’s future impact on a project, merely the proposed project’s impact on the environment. In that case, titled California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District, California Supreme Court sided with the Building Industry Association: 

It is the project's impact on the environment—and not the environment's impact on the project - that compels an evaluation of how future residents or users could be affected by exacerbated conditions.  

California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District

“The presumption has to be after this decision that CEQA is not going to be available to address the impact of climate change on a proposed project,” said Rick Frank, professor of environmental practice at UC Davis.

“The taxpaying public in this context, as well as in so many other contexts, is the insurer of last resort,” Frank said.  In addition to the legal change, he also said that the trouble may not begin for a decade or more, and developers may not even be in business anymore. 

“The companies have gone bankrupt or moved away. And it really does leave the government and the taxpaying public as holding the financial bag and the insurer and the liable party of last resort,” Frank said.   

So, that begs the question - why are those buildings still going up?

Well, part of it is human nature,” Wasserman said. “The bay is still a perfectly lovely, very lovely place to live and build."

Wasserman is hopeful that the new report will lead to better strategies for coping with rising seas. 

If not, he said “one of the things that will happen is that some investments that have been made will be worth much less than they were. And a particular building or set of buildings may be lost.” 

Across the Bay Area, our team found a variety of different projects that municipal leaders have allowed to proceed in problematic flood zones. In Mountain View, for example, there’s Google’s Charleston East and the North Bayshore Developments.

Flood Risk: Google Headquarters in Mountain View

The graphic below shows how a moderate 5-year storm in 2030, 2050 and 2100 could cause flooding in neighborhoods bordering the San Francisco Bay. Sea level estimates are based on a 2018 state report, “Sea Level Rise Projections for California,” which projects up to one foot of sea level rise in 2030, two feet in 2050 and seven feet in 2100. A five-year storm accounts for two additional feet of sea level rise in each of those scenarios.

Source: NOAA, Google Maps
Credit: Sean Myers/NBC Bay Area

“When we allow these projects we do have sustainability in mind,” said Mountain View Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga, adding, “I feel confident that at least our community is very well aware and acknowledges this as a threat.”

Abe-Koga said preparing for sea-level rise is difficult, if not impossible, especially if all Bay Area cities are not on board with a plan. “We really need the participation of all of the different cities, agencies to cooperate and work together, Abe-Koga said. “It is incumbent on all of us to work on this issue together.”   

Abe-Koga stresses that although they’ve permitted these developments that she now admits are problematic, her city council has been pushing back against some developers for a decade. The mayor points out that Mountain View, as policy, now requires companies to prepare for rising sea levels.  Even so, she agrees that four recent developments we found to be at risk may be threatened by rising water levels. When asked if taxpayers would have to shoulder some of the future flood mitigation costs, she said, I think it's going to be a shared responsibility. We do have projects that we are bonding for. But at the same time, we are requiring these corporations to contribute.”

Further north, in Menlo Park, Facebook began a major expansion in 2015, along with housing and retail.  After the project was approved, Menlo Park's city council began requiring all new construction near the bay to raise their building foundations at least two feet.

Even so, when we mapped the latest scientific data from NOAA it shows water levels rising significantly in that area and that Facebook West could become an island in 2030 should a typical five-year storm hit with a potential 12-inch sea-level rise.  

“It is definitely coming,” Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor said. “What are we going to do to protect our city and to protect our communities and our city?”

Taylor said she wasn’t in office back when the Facebook expansion was approved. She acknowledges the new development could be surrounded by water sooner than anyone expected when it was first proposed more than a decade ago.

“There’s definitely a concern now. So, which means that we have to make an effort, we as a council have to make an effort to have these conversations now,” Taylor said. 

Facebook responded with the following statement:

While all our new buildings are built above the flood elevation and account for sea level rise, we are partnering with the San Francisco Joint Powers Authority on the SAFER Bay project, which is a partnership with the cities of East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto, to develop a solution to protect the area from rising sea levels.

Facebook

Then there’s San Francisco. The latest models show that in 2030, with predicted sea-level rise of between 6 and 12 inches, during a 5-year storm, there could be flooding around brand-new condos along Mission Creek.

Using that same data, models show that by 2050, a new residential and retail tower at 75 Howard Street will have water around it, and so will the brand-new Golden State Warriors Arena, the Chase Center, and neighboring buildings.  You’ll have to wear your galoshes to get to a game.  

Flood Risk: Chase Center

The graphic below shows how a moderate 5-year storm in 2030, 2050 and 2100 could cause flooding in neighborhoods bordering the San Francisco Bay. Sea level estimates are based on a 2018 state report, “Sea Level Rise Projections for California,” which projects up to one foot of sea level rise in 2030, two feet in 2050 and seven feet in 2100. A five-year storm accounts for two additional feet of sea level rise in each of those scenarios.

Source: NOAA, Google Maps
Credit: Sean Myers/NBC Bay Area

Asked why buildings like the Chase Center are allowed to go forward, Zach Wasserman said, "Because there’s a balance between working to adapt for what we know is going to happen in the future and living our lives today. If we said to the Warriors, no, I'm sorry, you can't build anywhere near the water, we might not have a Warriors team in the Bay Area."

"So, you face some very hard choices of maintaining and continuing life today against potential damage that may occur in the future," Wasserman said. "The efforts that we're undertaking, the education that we're trying to undertake is meant to develop methods that will avoid the two trains (climate change and building development) crashing into each other and provide adaptation methods that will protect (projects like the) Chase Center.

When NBC Bay Area asked the Warriors about why they built the Chase Center in a potential flood zone, they responded, "Chase Center is above the projected 2100 flood levels and would not be subject to flooding during daily high tide conditions as late as the next century, even with the anticipated 36 inches of sea-level rise."

See complete Warriors statement here.

It’s important to note that the Warriors based their building on 36 inches of sea-level rise in 2100, whereas the Adapting to Rising Tides report says developers should build for a potential 10 feet of sea-level rise.

“There needs to be a strategy… that you can stamp and say this is the strategy that everybody's bought into” Goldzband said.

There is no such unifying region-wide strategy to address sea-level rise flooding in the Bay Area today.

Speaking at a recent State Assembly hearing on Sea Level Rise, Goldzband said, “We learn from the past. We want to make sure we learn from lessons of the wildfires. We need to plan now, and avoid disasters.”

Use interactive Bay Shoreline Flood Explorer.

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