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In The News

Building by the Bay: Sea level rise shapes the Bay Area's future

SF Chronicle, 6/11/10

KALWNews.org
By Crosscurrents Producer
Listen: 8:47 min
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/kalw/detail?entry_id=65534

If you're near the Bay and you're standing on flat land, chances are you're standing somewhere that's been filled and is vulnerable to sea level rise.

WILL TRAVIS: The only thing that is certain is that every time a projection comes out, it's higher than the last one. So this is one of these things where we don't know exactly how high the waters will rise, we just know that they will rise.

That's Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Yesterday, we heard Travis and others discussing the proposed development of Treasure Island--a place built on landfill in the middle of the Bay. Today, we're taking you to another development--the former Saltworks site in Redwood City. Developers say the community they want to build there at the edge of the Bay will be engineered to keep residents safe. But as Julia Scott reports, that's not an easy task.

*     *     *

It's a gray afternoon at Cargill's Redwood City Saltworks site. A salt harvester plows across a cloudy pond, separating noxious brine from the thick crust of salt that lies beneath.

These ponds have made salt for the last 150 years, and they haven't changed much. The brines are piped from pond to pond until the water evaporates and they crystallize into salt - a process that takes up to five years.

Most of the two-and-a-half-square-mile site is no more than a foot above sea level - some of it is even below. Yet today, the narrow earthen levees that were built to separate the salt ponds from the Bay are the only source of protection for much of Redwood City's industrial zone. The ponds may disappear, but levees will ensure the future of the Saltworks under a proposal to transform the site into the biggest low-lying Bayside development built in the last half-century.

DAVID SMITH: Our vision is to maximize the potential of the site to bring sorely needed housing to a very jobs-rich environment.

That's David Smith, a vice president with project developer DMB Associates.

SMITH: Between Silicon Valley and SF, this is one of the greatest economic engines in our country.

Where some see a moonscape of red-tinted salt ponds and piles of white slush, Smith sees up to 12,000 homes and one million square feet of office space - along with 450 acres of privately funded wetland restoration, playing fields and a school.

Environmental groups say the realities of sea level rise make the Saltworks site the last place a city should build. But Smith says this project will help lessen the effects of climate change on the Bay Area, not exacerbate them.

SMITH: When we're talking sea level rise, a big piece of it is our societal obligation to reduce emissions, and putting housing near jobs in a meaningful way, with significant transit opportunities and an ability to carry out your daily functions without getting in your car, is by far and away the greatest bite we can take out of those emissions.

Smith is standing at the northern edge of the site, overlooking part of the neighboring Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. While this area would be restored to wetlands under the Saltworks plan, the rest of the development would be protected by a levee - tall enough to handle four and a half feet of sea level rise over the coming century. That's the state's best guess as to what we can expect. Some levee sections would be as high as ten feet, turning the property into a kind of bathtub, which means some residents could be stuck with a view of the levee, instead of the Bay - that's a design issue the developer is trying to overcome.

SMITH: If you're right up against the area, it will be an attractive thing, but you're not going to want to see a levee and not be able to peek over to the Bay until the third story of your house. So making those dynamics work is a constant focus of attention for the design team.

Planning a new development is one thing - preserving your investment is another. Cities throughout the region are already seeing dollar signs when it comes to protecting existing development from sea level rise. According to a report from the Pacific Institute, building a wall in front of all the Bayside development in San Mateo County alone would cost $715 million.

Will Travis, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, wonders whether all of it is worth protecting. While low-lying urban areas like San Francisco and Silicon Valley justify future levee protection, he says the Peninsula in particular is worth a closer look.

TRAVIS: Those low-lying areas are going to need additional levees if they're going to protect those communities, and it's going to be very expensive, and I think we also need to look at some of those areas and decide: is the value of development less than the cost to protect it? And maybe we start in cases like that to do some managed retreat.

Tell that to the community of Redwood Shores. The 5,000-home subdivision was built on Bay pastureland in the 1950s, less than four miles from the Saltworks site. Since 1997, Redwood City has spent well over $5 million raising six miles of levees around this community.

The work was done to keep homeowners from having to buy federal flood insurance. But Grace Le, Redwood City 's senior civil engineer, figures it will also buy the city about 25 years under a worst-case scenario for sea level rise.

GRACE LE: We do accept that sea level will rise, but it won't happen overnight, and it's a progressive thing, it's through time, so for us, our maintenance plan is also through time. So we plan to keep up with it but we can't overreact and just improve everything at one time.

But the city could stop further development. And that's what one hundred twenty-five current and former elected officials have requested, signing a letter asking Redwood City to reject the Saltworks development, for environmental and safety concerns. Of course, many of the cities those officials represent wouldn't look the way they do now if not for having built by the Bay, or even in it, many years ago. And some, including Richmond and Alameda, are looking at low-lying developments of their own.

David Smith, of DMB Associates, says the naysayers are short sighted. He says the reality is the Bay Area is prone to sea level shifts, and that's going to need to be addressed one way or another.

SMITH: It's no mystery that the Bay needs a comprehensive vision to retrofit it from the threats of sea level rise throughout, and particularly in the South Bay. Because once there's an opening, even if you have multiple levee systems, once there's an opening that the water can get through, it will get on the back side and spread. So it needs to be a comprehensive seamless protective barrier.

And that's where his company comes in. Twenty-five years from now, when the Saltworks project is supposed to be fully built, Smith says developers with deep pockets could help cities realize grand regional protection schemes because they'll already have practice building them.

Today, one major difference between the new Saltworks project and the existing Redwood Shores community is that we've learned about sea level rise. Bay Conservation Executive Director Will Travis says that knowledge gives us time to plan future developments in a new way.

TRAVIS: We aren't building communities any more, we're building long-term campgrounds. And if you think of it that way, we may decide to build in a different way. We may decide that the best thing to do is have buildings that are specifically designed to only last 50 or 100 years, and then they can be decomposed, they can be disassembled, they can be moved away. Or we can design things that look like they're on solid ground now but when the water comes up underneath them, they're designed to float.

The Saltworks proposal doesn't include floating homes - the developer thinks residents would rather look at the Bay than be on top of it. But it does require homeowners to finance their own levee protection as long as the development exists. That means residents, and not just the developer, would be willing to bet that that the reward of living by the Bay is worth the risk.

In Redwood City, I'm Julia Scott, for Crosscurrents.

Look for Julia Scott's stories about sea level rise and its impacts on development in Sunday's Bay Area News Group papers. To learn more about the anticipated impact of sea level rise on the Bay Area, read the report by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. For more information on Redwood City Saltworks development proposal, visit the Redwood City Department of Planning, Housing and Economic Development website.

Health, Science and Environment
This article originally appeared on KALWNews.org

Posted By: KALW News (Email) | June 10 2010 at 03:43 PM

 

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