The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury has a message for city and county officials who are dragging their feet regarding sea-level rise: Get with the program.
Mired in complacency toward what they see as a slow-moving emergency, public agencies are not adequately preparing for future flooding from climate change, the grand jury found after investigating a complaint questioning countywide planning and preparedness related to rising seas.
Grand jurors made three determinations in their report, titled, "A Slow Rising Emergency -- Sea Level Rise": current flood-control measures won't prevent flooding from higher water levels; cities abutting the bay, along with the county, are inconsistent in their responses to the problem; and not every government entity that should be addressing sea-level rise is doing so.
"Consequently, we have a disjointed approach within the county to address the ramifications," they wrote in a 26-page report released June 16.
The grand jury cited several studies and reports that identified sea-level rise as an emergency in California. Average sea level in California is projected to increase by an additional six inches by 2030, 12 inches by 2050 and 36 inches by 2100, according to a 2012 report by the National Research Council.
The cost of not addressing the sea-level rise would be devastating, the grand jury noted. Santa Clara County ranks second in the state in potential losses due to flooding and third in the number of people who would be exposed to flood dangers, according to an April 2013 report, "California's Flood Future," by the California State Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Sea-level changes could affect 270,000 people -- and more than 257 technology companies -- and destroy $62 billion in shoreline development, according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and sea-level experts.
Mountain View has done the most to address the problem; Milpitas has done nothing, the grand jury found.
Palo Alto has done some work -- mainly through its plans for San Francisquito Creek. But it is ignorant of other cities' efforts, and it has focused on sustainability and greenhouse-gas reduction, but not sea-level rise, in its Climate Action Plan, the report noted.
The city also released a 2014 "Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment" report, but sea-level rise is not one of the hazards in the report. Flooding and severe winter storms are listed hazards, however, the grand jury noted.
Mountain View has a 12-project plan in place. Its Public Works Department produced a feasibility report and capital-improvement program for the Shoreline Regional Park community, which addressed sea-level threats to the entire city.
Mountain View is also looking at possible improvements to Charleston Slough and the Palo Alto flood-basin levees as well as to the Charleston Slough tide gates. Costs for the suite of projects is estimated at $43 million to $57 million, about half of which the city expects to directly fund, according to Lisa Au, City of Mountain View principal civil engineer.
The grand jury concluded that much of the inertia is attributable to a lack of state and county direction. State Assembly Bill 32, the 2008 California Global Warming Solution Act, directs county governments to develop action plans to reduce greenhouse gasses to 1990 levels by 2020, but there is no comparable legislation to address sea-level rise.
There is also no joint-power authority or any other agreement between the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the cities. The grand jury found a number of deficiencies in Santa Clara Valley Water District, which by law is responsible for flood control in the county. The water district has held only one public meeting since July 2012 on sea-level rise, the jurors noted.
The grand jury recommended the water district take a more proactive role to unify, integrate and direct the cities' and county's efforts on sea-level rise. Palo Alto and the other cities should prioritize the issue at a higher level. And Palo Alto should identify sea-level rise as a hazard in its Threat and Hazard assessment plan, the report noted.
The looming problem was the focus of a June 19 conference spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Assemblyman Rich Gordon and NASA Ames in Mountain View, which drew 250 people.
Len Materman, executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, said his agency has developed the SAFER Bay Project. It is the largest multi-county sea-level rise project in the state. SAFER Bay will design and conduct environmental reviews of levees and of new flood-mitigation facilities for Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. Its goal is to protect the cities from a 100-year bay tide with 3 feet of sea-level rise.
The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority is also spearheading the $37-million San Francisquito Creek flood-control project. Earlier this month Caltrans began construction on part of the creek project, addressing bridging across U.S. Highway 101.
Experts said at the conference that gauges in San Francisco Bay dating to 1857 revealed the sea level has risen about 7 inches in the past 100 years.
Palo Alto City Councilman Greg Scharff said the conference has convinced him that the city needs to take another look at its shoreline plans when it looks to update its pending Sustainability and Climate Action Plan.
"There seems to be so much more we can do in light of what was said today," he said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has pointed to three main reasons for ocean-level rise: oceanic thermal expansion, which occurs when water constrained by land masses heats and moves upward onto low-lying areas; melting glaciers and polar ice caps; and ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica.