Climate-Change Denial in Alameda

As sea levels rise, the Island will face the most serious flooding in the East Bay. But officials have been slow to float sustainable solutions.


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Illustration by Minwoo Park

Alameda, in other words, could be the East Bay’s ground zero for flooding in the decades to come. And if the city and local property owners fail to address the issue, then it could cost federal taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs after the next disaster strikes.  

Maps from the 1850s show that when Europeans settled in Alameda, Bay Farm Island was a marsh where Ohlone Indians foraged for oysters. The settlers converted the marsh into asparagus, lettuce, and oyster farms. Then in the 20th century, developers filled the farmland. Today, Bay Farm consists of residential communities, commercial and industrial areas, a golf course, and Oakland International Airport.

In addition, two-thirds of modern-day Alameda, including Bay Farm, South Shore, and Alameda Point, are built on former marsh or fill. And that spells trouble, according to the Pacific Institute’s Heberger. “When one looks at areas built on fill and zones vulnerable to flooding, there’s a remarkable correlation,” Heberger said. “All of these areas that are on fill are the most vulnerable at high tide in the future.”

And as fill settles and infrastructure ages, said Simmons, the FEMA regional engineer, the ability of levees to provide protection diminishes.

“Higher is safer,” Heberger said.

FEMA’s draft maps, which were released in 2015, placed many homes around Bay Farm Island’s lagoon system in the 100-year flood zone, along with Chuck Corica Golf Course, Doolittle Drive, and Oakland International Airport. The maps showed that other heavily impacted areas in Alameda are along Eastshore and Fernside; homes along Ballena Boulevard, Cola Ballena, and Tideway near Encinal High School; businesses near the Posey and Webster tubes and Mariner Square Drive; businesses near the Main Street Ferry; and much of Alameda Point.

The city’s letter about FEMA’s maps sent ripples of consternation and disbelief across Alameda. Some felt the maps were a wake-up call to a new climate-changed reality. During a public meeting, Ingrid Dayton, who has lived on Alameda’s Westside for 18 years, brandished a yellowed copy of the Jan. 5, 1982, edition of the Alameda Times Star as evidence of the city’s water-soaked proclivities. The newspaper featured accounts of an unusually strong storm, which caused a portion of a newly constructed lagoon wall on Bay Farm Island to collapse, engulfing the golf course in water and turning Alameda’s west end into a lake. “Alameda is going to be underwater in 100 years, but people don’t want to face that,” Dayton said.

But many residents questioned FEMA’s maps and the federal agency’s motives during a public meeting in 2015. These residents, without evidence, claimed that FEMA was trying to mandate more flood insurance so the agency could use the revenues to pay down debts incurred in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. “This is a bureaucratic shell game,” alleged South Shore resident Dave Case, as he accused FEMA of widening its flood insurance pool to offset costs elsewhere.

“I’m not here to sell insurance,” Simmons responded firmly. “I’m here to avoid the next disaster.”

Sarah Owens, a specialist with FEMA’s natural hazards program, noted that insurance makes people who live in riskier areas shoulder more of the financial consequences. “Should people who live in Ohio or New Jersey pay, or do you pay for it, when you live in higher risk areas?” she asked.

But when Owens suggested people could move or elevate their homes to remove them from the flood zone, many members of the audience scoffed. “There are height limits,” Dayton said, referring to city zoning regulations. “The neighbors want to know what you are doing. It’s going to block their sunlight and views. And you can’t just knock down trees.”

Photo by S. Ross Cameron

In their September 2015 letter to residents, city officials said they were reviewing the Veteran’s Court seawall and the low spot at the northern end of Bay Farm’s lagoon system to see if reengineering would reduce flood risks. The city is also looking for partners to help shore up Doolittle Drive at Watermelon Rock, a painted slab of concrete that lies among the rocks of the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline Park. Watermelon Rock informally marks the lowest-lying spot near the airport, said Laurie Kozisek, acting senior engineer in the city’s Public Works Department. There are concerns that seawater could overtop the roadway at that spot during extreme tides and storms and flood Oakland International Airport, which served more than 12 million passengers last year and is the major air cargo hub for Northern California.

“If we can get the East Bay Regional Park District to build a path and Caltrans to build a road and the port to work with everybody, maybe it’s possible to raise the entire area from Watermelon Rock to Harbor Bay Parkway,” Kozisek said.

As for the main island’s South Shore area, which was tidal mudflats before developers filled it in the 1950s, Kozisek revealed that, early in FEMA’s mapping, the agency thought parts of South Shore belonged in the 100-year flood plain, too. “But then I explained how their lagoon system works,” Kozisek said, referring to the pumps, weirs, and flood gates that control water in the lagoons that snake between the residential developments that run parallel to Shoreline Drive.

Jennifer Ott, the city’s chief operating officer at Alameda Point, which once was a creek-riddled marsh, said the city’s redevelopment plans for the former Naval Air Station take rising sea levels into account. Anything west of Main Street is designed to be protected, Ott said, as part of the city’s Master Development Plan, which includes building a sea wall 2 feet higher than FEMA’s current 100-year floodplain, and insures a right-of-way so the wall can be made higher or wider as needed.

“The wall already takes wind, wave run-up, and sea-level rise into account and includes additional strategies if flooding still occurs,” Ott said. “Sea-level rise is unpredictable, and things could change or speed up,” she added, noting that the plan includes a $600 million fund for flood protection improvements. Developers can either build improvements, including grading or adding fill to a development site, or pay a fee. “We can’t re-grade the historic areas, so we will protect them with a levee,” Ott added.

Yet despite the progress in dealing with flood threats at Alameda Point, the city is still fighting FEMA’s determinations on other areas of the Island.

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