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Planning Questions Persist Over Sea Level Rise

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Speakers at this week’s sea level planning conference in Oakland cited everybody from H. L. Mencken to Yogi Berra (“You can observe a lot just by watching”). But the primary insight from the event may have been courtesy of Robert Frost: “…miles to go before (we) sleep.”

About 225 representatives from industry, government and academia gathered at the behest of the non-profit Bay Planning Coalition.  The effort was to push forward a planning agenda to help prepare the Bay Area and coastal California for rising sea levels due to the changing climate. There is considerable uncertainty surrounding how much sea level rise we should expect in the decades to come. There were indications at the conference that planners were starting to coalesce around predictions of 16 inches by 2050, and 55 inches by 2100, projections embraced by the state’s formal climate adaptation plan.

Greater still is the uncertainty surrounding how governments, businesses and public agencies will respond to the challenge. Estimates are that rising seas threaten $100 billion of “economic assets” statewide, half of which are in the Bay Area. While most speakers seemed to agree on the urgency of mobilizing a coordinated planning effort, few seemed certain where to start.

The palpable frustration in the room was voiced  by, among others, Calla Rose Ostrander, Climate Action Coordinator with the City and County of San Francisco. “I think we’ve set ourselves up to need certainty, to make decisions,” she told me, saying that public agencies in charge of roads and development feel paralyzed. “When we apply for funding for these things,” explained Ostrander, they (potential funders) say ‘How are you planning for it?’ And we haven’t been advised yet on how to plan for it.” That dilemma was echoed by Paul Thayer of the California State Lands Commission: “You can’t engineer for a range of sea level rise,” he said. And yet that would appear to be the task.

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrustructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrastructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Funding is another area that remains fuzzy, amid all the inter-agency discussions, and one that was not substantively addressed at the conference. It is expected that rising seas will require billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades. The Port of Oakland, for example, is awaiting the outcome of a study to determine what “perimeter defenses” will be needed to keep runways at Oakland International Airport above water.

Several speakers raised concern about rallying public support to confront a threat that is so diffuse. Will Travis, who heads the San Francisco-based Bay Conservation & Development Commission, predicted that “bringing it home” to households with more immediate worries will be the biggest challenge. And yet we can’t wait, warned Travis. “The longer we wait, the worse the problem becomes.”

Scientists as well as policymakers are pondering how to respond to rising sea levels. Nicole Heller of our content partner Climate Central recently attended a conference aimed at that end of the issue, and wrote about it in the Climate Central blog.

California Cities Get High Marks for Energy Efficiency

San Francisco

Los Angeles tops a new ranking (PDF) of the 25 U.S. cities with the most energy efficient buildings, released by the Environmental Protection Agency.  With 293 Energy Star-rated buildings encompassing 76 million square feet of space, Los Angeles saves $93.9 million and reduces emissions equal that from electricity use by 34,800 homes, according to the EPA.

Washington, D.C. was ranked second, and San Francisco third.  Two other California cities made the top 25: Sacramento (16th) and San Diego (17th).  According to EPA data, San Francisco has 173 Energy Star buildings (including Hotel Nikko and One Embarcadero Center) that save an estimated $69.4 million in energy costs and reduce emissions equivalent to 24,700 homes. Sacramento and San Diego have 61 and 58, respectively.

As of the end of last year, 9,000 commercial buildings had been awarded Energy Star designation since 1999, representing a combined savings in utility costs of $1.6 billion and a reduction in GHG emissions equal to that of one million homes, according to the EPA.

Buildings that qualify for Energy Star are those that score in the top 25%, based on the EPA’s National Energy Performance Rating System, which compares energy use among facilities of similar types on a scale of 1-100.

When Green Ain’t Necessarily Green

San Francisco's Franklin Square Park (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

San Francisco's Franklin Square Park in late February. Photo: Gretchen Weber

One of my favorite things about living in San Francisco is that springtime starts in February.  A month, which, when I was growing up in New England, was the grayest, worst month of all.

But here, walking down the street outside KQED last week, I could smell the blossoms on the budding trees. Sometimes you can even hear the birds chirping over the sounds of buses pulling in and out of the MUNI yard across the street.

One block away from the station, there’s a public park.  The turf grass there has been pretty green all year (something that was certainly not true of the parks from my childhood.)   Walking by the park and its lush green lawn the other day, I was reminded of an argument I’ve been having with my mother for about 20 years: Just because its green, and it’s grass, that doesn’t mean it’s good, Mom.  Okay, maybe it’s visually good, if you go for a certain aesthetic, but a perfectly manicured lawn, green as it may be, isn’t necessarily good for the planet.  And I’m not just talking about the visits that ChemLawn paid to my childhood home every summer.

Yes, there’s the water issue.  In California, we could still be staring into our fourth year of drought (mostly from cumulative effects of the past three years), and there’s been a lot of talk about how much water traditional lawns eat up.  There are advocates for growing native plants in front of your house instead of turf grass for that very reason.

But a recent report takes the lawn debate beyond water. In the study, researchers from UC Irvine found that ornamental turf grass actually produces more greenhouse gases than it absorbs, once you factor in emissions from irrigation, fertilization, and mowing.  Plants naturally remove CO2 from the air as part of photosynthesis, and so lawns and parks have often been thought of as carbon “sinks,” that is having a net negative effect on atmospheric CO2 levels.  But that may be because most studies haven’t factored “lawn care” into the equation.

Read more about the study in the LA Times.

Everything You Know (About Water) is Wrong

If Dan Brekke isn’t editing newscasts at KQED Radio, chances are that he’s poring over charts full of arcane statistics from the state Department of Water Resources. Call it a hobby. Okay, call it an obsession. Either way, we frequently turn to Dan for his insights into California’s water conundrum.

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Everything You Know is Wrong

By Dan Brekke

California is home to 37 million people—and to 37 million water experts. If no one’s ever said that, someone should have.

There’s nothing more central to life here and no subject that excites stronger opinions. Recent events have shown that those opinions can easily harden into certainty about what needs to be done to solve all of California’s water problems—the needs of those 37 million people, the needs of the state’s incomparably rich agricultural industry, the needs of native fish and ecosystems.

We’ve long since learned that one person’s “solution”—to build dams and divert water for farms and cities, say—can be another’s nightmare—for instance, the communities that depend on healthy fisheries for their well-being. The conflicts over water are so deep and longstanding that they can make rational discussion difficult or impossible.

This week, though, the Public Policy Institute of California published a report that aims to inject some understanding into the water debate by challenging opinions and misconceptions. The report tests eight widely-held beliefs about water against the complex realities that underlie them. The first myth is fundamental to how we see water issues: “California is running out of water.” The reality the PPIC and its all-star panel of water experts propose is a sobering one: “California has run out of abundant water (our italics) and will need to adapt to increasing water scarcity.”

There’s something in the list of myths to rankle just about everyone. One myth goes like this: “[Insert villain here] is responsible for California’s water problems.” The report goes on to assess several villain-candidates, including:

- Wasteful Southern California homeowners with their lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools,

- Farmers who get federally subsidized (read “cheap”) water, and

- Protections for endangered species (as in “Why are we giving water to that Delta smelt?”).

In reality, the report says, coastal Southern California does an excellent job of limiting residential water use; farmers getting cheap water are in fact paying a price for the subsidy and are becoming more efficient water users; and actions taken to protect the smelt has had a comparatively small impact on water shipments through the Delta.

The PPIC says in the introduction to “California Water Myths” that a “policy based on facts and science is essential if California is to meet the multiple, sometimes competing goals for sustainable management” of water for the rest of the century. No one can argue with that, though it’s certain that squabbles over water will persist. Maybe the best we as Californians can hope for is an honest effort to try to understand the needs of all other water users, and to give each of them the benefit of the doubt when considering solutions to our water problems.

The PPIC report: “California Water Myths,” is available on the institute website or in an excellent interactive version put together by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Meanwhile, how are we doing this winter? Not great. Below is an interactive map of California’s major reservoirs, comparing their current levels to average or “normal” levels for this time of year.

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

Plan Moves Climate Adaptation to Front Burner

A one-fifth reduction in per capita water use by 2020 is among the goals outlined in a new state report on adapting to climate change.

Released by the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) as a “discussion draft,”  the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy is being billed as the nation’s first comprehensive game plan for adaptation to climate change.

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

Most of the state’s high-profile climate initiatives (and battles) have been about mitigation; how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow down warming. This report swings the spotlight over to adaptation; what needs to be done to accommodate the climate change effects that are already “in the pipeline.”

While the California’s centerpiece climate law was passed three years ago, this week’s CNRA report concedes that “adaptation is a relatively new concept in California policy.” The 161-page white paper comes in response to an executive order from the Governor last fall, calling for a statewide adaptation strategy.

The draft divides the strategy into seven “sectors:” Public health, biodiversity and habitat, ocean and coastal resources, water, agriculture, and forestry.

Tony Brunello, Deputy Secretary for Climate Change and Energy at CNRA, says “This is the first report that really looks at how climate change is going to impact the state and what we need to do about it.”

But Brunello stopped short of conceding that mitigation is a lost cause. “You only have half a deck if you’re only focused on mitigation,” he said. “You need to focus on both mitigation and adaptation to truly be prepared.”

Some strategies attack both. Brunello points to water conservation measures, which save both water and energy (20% of the energy used in the state is deployed moving water around).

The plan is designed to work in consort with the California Air Resources Board’s implementation plan for AB-32, the state’s multifaceted attack on greenhouse gas emissions. CNRA says one of its goals is to “enhance” existing efforts, rather than create new programs and offices that need funding.

CNRA also promises to use the “best available science in identifying climate change risks and adaptation strategies.” Andrew Revkin has a useful overview of the mounting challenges to climate scientists, published this week in the New York Times.

One planned product from the adaptation plan is an interactive website devoted to climate adaptation, with maps and data to assist local planners. CNRA hopes to have that in place by early next year. The draft plan now enters a 45-day period for public comment.

Transportation’s Tricky Carbon Footprint

Kristine Wong is our Climate Watch intern for the current term. She’s a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

interchange_0145_blogStudy comparing environmental impact of transportation modes yields surprising results

By Kristine Wong

You may not believe that during peak commute hours, Boston’s light rail system generates more greenhouse gases (GHGs) per person than a gas-powered, fully occupied SUV–or a commercial airliner filled to capacity, traveling the same distance.

Yet this is what UC Berkeley researchers found in a study released this week. Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath compared the environmental impacts of cars, buses, planes, and rail after adding up all the energy costs and emissions (both GHGs and local air pollutants) over their entire life cycle–not just by what came out of the tailpipe. The authors say no such comprehensive study had been done before.

The researchers developed a method that evaluated each transportation mode based on the energy inputs needed for production and maintenance of the vehicle itself. They also looked at the infrastructure for each mode, such as construction of supporting components like rail station platforms and airport runways, bus and rail station lighting and parking, and the source of  power for each mode (e.g. gasoline, jet fuel, diesel or electric–and the costs of distributing and producing these inputs).

In total, Chester and Horvath compared 79 components across all transportation modes. Within each they also selected a few variations to represent differences, depending on factors such as vehicle make and mileage, passenger occupancy, and size.

The results were both logical and surprising. Most of the energy consumed and GHG emissions from auto, bus and air travel originated from the operational period, not from the materials needed to produce and maintain the vehicles. Rail produced the greatest amount of GHGs compared to all other modes over their life cycle. But Chester and Horvath point out that there is a big difference in GHG emissions from light rail systems in the Bay Area versus, say, Boston due to the portion of fossil fuel-based electricity used. Boston’s fuel mix is 82% fossil, while the Bay Area’s BART system clocks in at just 49% fossil fuel–a major factor in efficiency and GHG emission rates.

Finally, passenger occupancy was a key factor influencing efficiency. Not surprisingly, each mode was most efficient when used to capacity. But the researchers caution that boosting passenger occupancy is not a magic bullet. They say minimizing fossil fuel inputs and adding pollution filters and controls would have a greater effect on efficiency.

Chester and Horvath say that they hope their results will provide a framework for more comprehensive analysis of the environmental impacts of transportation, and to assess the impact of hybrid or electric vehicles and alternative energy sources such as biofuels, solar power, and wind power, none of which were included in the study.

There are more details of the study posted at the websites for Green Car Congress and Sustainable Transportation.

California’s Water Meter Rebellion Withers

City water conservation specialist Marilyn Creel shows Fresno resident Mary Ann Evans how to adjust her sprinklers to point them away from the sidewalk.

City water conservation specialist Marilyn Creel shows Fresno resident Mary Ann Evans how to adjust her sprinklers to point them away from the sidewalk.

Monday on The California Report, Central Valley Bureau Chief Sasha Khokha tracks one city’s longstanding rebellion against water meters–and says the day of reckoning is nearly at hand. Listen to Sasha’s story here.

I admit it. I wanted to do this story because I saw so many of my neighbors watering their driveways. What I learned is that unmetered cities are a long and slow-dying tradition in the Central Valley.

Martin McIntyre, who used to head Fresno’s water agency, explained how vehement anti-metering forces swayed voters and banned meters in the city charter:

“They were really false arguments. The simple phraseology was ‘meters are taxing machines,’ and they’re going to use meters to fund city hall activities. And, in fact, as is the case for all municipal water supply systems, the funds collected from ratepayers by law can only be used for the operation and improvement of the water supply system. Nonetheless, that resonated with some of the public and it was very easy for a handful of people to get prominent headlines above the fold simply by saying city hall is taxing us to death.”

State lawmakers overrode Fresno’s rule, because they understood that cities with meters use less water.

Ellen Hanak, a water researcher with the Public Policy Institute of California, has found that metered cities use about 15 percent less water than unmetered cities. And cities with a tiered rate system save an additional ten percent on top of that. In addition to usage, her report compares different cities’ water rates. Of course, San Franciscans get away with using less water because–guess what? Many of them don’t have front yards.

Hanak crunched statewide residential water rate numbers and determined that more than half of San Joaquin Valley residents don’t have water meters. (For further details, read the survey disclaimer.)

But meters are coming, one way or another.

There are basically three laws that will eventually require the entire state to install water meters. One says that all homes built after 1992 must have meters. Another dictates that cities that get federal water (like Fresno) have to install meters by 2013. And yet another law says that all California cities (including holdouts like Sacramento) have to be metered by 2025.

Fresno is gearing up to install its first meters this year. They’ve even created a handy Q&A for skittish customers.

And if you thought Central California was the only laggard, this might make you feel better: many Chicago residents don’t have meters, either.

But they probably don’t have the sprinkler ladies–who can fix any leaky, squeaky, spritzy sprinkler, and make sure it’s pointing away from the sidewalk.

KQED’s Sasha Khokha braves sprinkler spray to record Fresno’s city water conservation team at work.

KQED’s Sasha Khokha braves sprinkler spray to record Fresno’s city water conservation team at work.

“The Australian Reality”

Australia's Simpson Desert. Photo: Mike Gillam

Australia's Simpson Desert. Photo: Mike Gillam

Referring to Australia’s seven-year drought, that’s how the state’s top water manager describes the new paradigm for water planning at the Dept. of Water Resources.

Speaking to a packed house at the annual forum of the Sacramento River Watershed Program yesterday, DWR Director Lester Snow said his staff is assuming that 2010 will be another dry year. Snow warned about “loss of resilience” in the state’s water system, calling it “completely unsustainable” in it’s present form, given predictions for population growth, coupled with anticipated effects of climate change.

All speakers at the forum seemed to agree that a paradigm shift is in order. Thomas Philps, a strategist at SoCal’s Metropolitan Water District, pointed out that in Victoria’s capital city of Melbourne (Australia), per capita water consumption runs about 40 gallons per day, while in California’s capital, it’s 280 gallons. As Sasha Khoka will report Monday morning on The California Report, Sacramento is just one of several cities in the Central Valley that still doesn’t meter its water use. Philps added that the Sacramento region is “on a trajectory” to use the same volume of water as Los Angeles, though he did not say by when.

UC Davis geologist Jeff Mount cautioned against relying on additional surface storage to secure California’s water future. Not only does storing water become “very expensive” year over year, but dams and reservoirs “don’t create any new water,” he said. (If some think Mount is taking a “jaundiced view” of the situation, it might be because he braved a bout of hepatitis to deliver his morning talk)

In a panel discussion on resource planning, moderator Greg Zlotnick of the Santa Clara Valley Water District asked panelists to respond with “true” or “false” to a quote from the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick in a story aired on NPR last week. The quote, as given by Zlotnick, was: “Government has built infrastructure and made promises that can’t be kept.” Here are the panelists’ responses:

Tina Swanson, The Bay Institute: “True.”

Philps: “True, but…” (Generally true but MWD doesn’t really expect to get its full contractual allocation of water anymore, anyway)

Don Glaser, US Bureau of Reclamation: “False, but…” (Water allotments from his agency’s Central Valley Project are intended to be “supplemental contracts,” to augment use of groundwater and other sources, but Glaser sees the statement becoming “more and more true in the future.”)

Snow: “Hell, no.”

Robust Discussion of Rising Seas

KQED’s Forum program devoted a full hour this morning to recent projections for sea level rise and the threat it poses to California. Listen to the archived program here.

I joined host Michael Krasny and guests Peter Gleick and Will Travis, to discuss some of the recent findings. Travis heads the Bay Conservation & Development Commission and Gleick’s Pacific Institute issued a new report on the impacts last week.

Travis is just back from a trip to The Netherlands where he was studying some of the engineering techniques that the Dutch have deployed, to keep the North Sea at bay. Gleick has been tracking the issue here in California since 1990.

Gleick’s impact projections were underscored last week when scientists at a climate conference in Copenhagen projected a potential one-meter rise in the mean sea level by the end of this century, depending on how soon and how much we’re able to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a pretty significant adjustment from the 2007 UN report, which had the rise pegged at a foot or two over the same time span. And two months ago, a USGS-led report postulated that a four-foot rise isn’t out of the question.

Some interesting questions and comments that came in from listeners:

- Sewage treatment plants in the Bay Area recently overwhelmed by storms are one glimpse into a future with higher sea levels.

- If pumps that convey water through the giant state and federal water projects in the Central Valley were solar-powered, it would reduce the carbon footprint of moving water around in California (often cited as 20% of our electricity use).

- A barrier at the Golden Gate could help “stem the tide” and potentially be part of a plant generating tidal power (Travis was skeptical).

- The Earth’s rotational bevavior also affects sea level and should be factored in.

In response to a listener who asked about a recent newspaper column that was dismissive of the prevailing climate science, I got the following note from Dave Johnson, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who teaches at Stanford:

“As to the climate-change contrarians, my short-form answer is this: I favor giving the scientifically-credible contrarian point of view some credit, and quite likely more than Al Gore or others would like. Why? Not because they necessarily have the science part right (or closer to right) than the IPCC.  Rather, it’s because the problem itself is a very complex system. Science is just now scoping the boundaries and behaviors of complex systems; to predict their behavior (especially of non-physical systems) will, to paraphrase Edward Witten, require ’22nd century’ knowledge.  As such, we all have to recognize the possibility, if not likelihood, that the global climate system might do things that we cannot fathom, much less predict. One possibility is self-correction to an equilibrium that can hold for another century or two. The other, sadly, is the converse – a spin-out into disequilibrium. Objectively, each has its percentage of possibility; so, objectively, each has to be seriously considered.  In short, whether I agree or disagree with the contrarians is, objectively, of no moment whatsoever.  In science, the strongest advocate of a particular conclusion must embrace the most aggressive testing of that conclusion. “

Hard to disagree with that. It’s always perilous to dismiss contrarian views out of hand. Galileo was a contrarian.

A Rising Tide Raises All Costs

Pacific Institute. Complete maps at link, below.

Photo: Pacific Institute. Complete maps at link, below.

This has been a week of dire predictions about the rising sea level and its eventual consequences.

On Tuesday, scientists preparing for the Copenhagen climate talks this year said that the current IPCC working model for sea level is out of date and overly cheerful.  German climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf told the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change that even the most optimistic outlook for carbon emissions now portends at least a one-meter rise, or 3.28 feet by the end of this century. The U.N.’s 2007 report had anticipated a rise of up to two feet over the same time period.

Then today, analysts at Oakland’s Pacific Institute chimed in with a projection of California impacts from rising seas, based on a rise of 1.4 meters by 2100.

The report, which includes maps of projected inundation, projects nearly a half-million people at risk of a “100-year” flood event and loss of 41 square miles of coastal land, due to erosion.

“Critical infrastructure” in harm’s way includes highways, hospitals, schools, power and sewage treatment plants, as well as residential neighborhoods. It also includes several of the state’s busiest airports.

The report estimates that the tab for protecting that infrastructure could easily run to $14 billion. According to co-author Matt Heberger, “Communities really have to decide what it is that they value about the coast, whether that’s habitat, recreation, aesthetics, boating, shipping, all sort of things. We won’t necessarily be able to preserve all of those things at the same time. ”

The Governor has already issued an executive order requiring sea level rise to be factored into urban planning in all vulnerable regions of California. There remains an enormous planning task ahead.

Heberger sums it up thusly: “The evidence is in and we know what the impacts to the state are going to be. Now, what are we going to do about it?”

We’ll get some answers to that question on Monday’s Forum program on KQED and Sirius satellite. Listen to the archived program here.

Oceans Rising
Guests joining our discussion include Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission; Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a non-partisan research institute on the environment and social equity; and Craig Miller, senior editor of KQED’s Climate Watch.