Next month federal officials will release new rates for flood insurance in areas at risk for future flooding, and they will shock many residents required to have such insurance.
Blame the rising sea level. That was one message at an afternoon-long conference that brought together scientists, engineers and city, county, state and federal officials to discuss what's known and not known about a projected rise in sea levels -- meaning also San Francisco Bay -- and impacts on Santa Clara County.
The conference, attended by about 250 people, was held at NASA Ames, located at the former Moffett Field Naval Air Station in Mountain View. It was co-hosted by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Assemblyman Rich Gordon and NASA Ames Director Eugene Tu. Eshoo and Tu credited Gordon with bringing the issue of sea-level rise to the forefront of national, state and local issues needing to be addressed -- especially the need to begin preparing for it realistically (which Gordon calls "adaptation").
Here's a nutshell summary of the conference:
The risk of rising seas is made greater in the South Bay by serious land subsidence from past pumping of underground aquifers and a weak and ancient system of dikes -- essentially piled-up mud from the construction early last century of salt ponds ringing the shallow end of the bay.
Those concerned about sea levels and climate change have been frustrated by the question of how to alert the public about the risk, or how to convert apathy or denial into concern and action.
Even cities not in the risk zone for flooding will be impacted, officials said, citing potentially millions of public tax and private dollars that will need to be spent to counter the rising seas.
Actions taken in the near future will be far less expensive than actions taken after the impacts begin happening, officials warned. Delays could inflate the costs of property damage and too-late preparations into the billions.
No one is quite sure how high the sea will rise, or when the rise will peak. Much depends on the rate of global warming and consequent melting of glaciers, chiefly in Greenland and Antartica. But the consensus among scientists and a growing number of federal, state and -- recently -- local officials is that the sea will rise between 18 inches and about 3 feet by 2050. Worse, the rise is expected to continue for decades beyond 2050. Yet whatever the ultimate sea level will be, the real threat is when it is combined with storms, due to more volatile weather linked to global warming.
That time frame is easily within the lifetimes of our younger generation in schools today. And certainly it will impact their children. (This struck home with me as I sat in the conference: I just became a great-grandfather this month, with a baby girl named Journey, daughter of my grandson, Noah. I hope his name isn't prophetic!)
Gordon noted that when he first joined the Assembly, the conversation related to the global issue of climate change and atmosphere-warming "greenhouse gas" emissions. There was little discussion of what local communities or counties needed to do to deal with the expected rise in sea levels.
Gordon said he introduced the term "adaptation" to convey the message that local communities, as well as regional, federal and state agencies, need to not only be aware of future threats but to take action to reduce or prevent the worst of the damage and risk.
How immediate is the threat in Santa Clara County? First, about a quarter of high-value homes in southeast lowlands of Palo Alto are at risk of being flooded by several feet of water at current sea levels, or from San Francisquito Creek flooding, as happened in 1998. Additional homes in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto are also at risk from storm runoff or tidal action, or both.
NASA Ames itself is at risk, officials noted, showing an overhead view that showed half the main Moffett Field runway under water with a moderate rise in sea level. Even residents far from the waterline will be impacted by flooding of highways and from health threats throughout the region, speakers noted.
The range of speakers and panelists represented at the conference illustrates the rising level of concern about the challenge, from keynote speaker Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences and professor of earth sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to Len Materman, executive director of the local San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority.
Moderators of the two panels -- one regionally and the other locally focused -- were Will Travis, retired executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and Greg Scharff, a BCDC board member and Palo Alto City Council member.
Beyond the physical threats from flooding there is a serious concern about public health, Susan Stuart, a planner with the Center for Chronic Diseases and Injury Prevention of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, warned sharply.
"It's been said that climate change is the most significant risk to human health" now facing officials and the public, from injuries and infections, to "severe psycho-social stress."
"Thousands of people could be at risk of displacement from homes or jobs. By 2100 over 30,000 people will be at risk," including workers unable to get to work because of flooded roads and those made ill by flooded sewage-treatment plants.
NASA is preparing a video of the conference, and the state is working on a new climate-change database due for release by the end of this year.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at email@example.com and/or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also posts periodically on his blog on PaloAltoOnline.com.