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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Photo by D. Ross Cameron

Paul Beusterien says he's frustrated by the glacial pace at which he feels the city is responding to the threats it's facing.

Much like Alameda, Foster City is flat with land that was once part of the bay. In fact, Foster City faces more flood risks than Alameda does. And its flood risk zone “could get significantly wider,” said Simmons of FEMA.

In 2015, FEMA determined that roughly 85 percent of Foster City’s levee system was not adequate to meet the agency’s current guidelines and placed the entire city in the 100-year flood zone. Foster City responded by designing improvements that will raise its levee to remove all impacted properties from the flood zone at an estimated cost of $75 million, with completion expected by mid-2020.

Additionally, the Foster City Council is considering a multimillion-dollar project to build a hybrid levee that can be adjusted to meet future sea-level rise to protect 9,000 parcels of property that would otherwise be at flood risk under FEMA’s maps.

But in Alameda, there doesn’t appear to be the political will to launch a similar initiative or find a way to pay for it. “If we had a defined project, it might be prudent to start raising awareness, but passing a citywide bond measure presents political challenges,” Kozisek said. “Foster City is at the end of bay and therefore is more impacted by the ‘sloshing of the tub,’ so they’re farther ahead in the process.”

But compared to Foster City, Alameda’s leaders appear to be dragging their heels: Rather than devising a plan to deal with potential catastrophic flooding, Alameda in September 2016 decided to join a FEMA flood maps appeal that the Port of Oakland submitted for the airport seven months earlier. In its appeal paperwork known as an “addendum,” Alameda included an analysis of why city officials believe floodwater would not reach as far inland, or for as long, as FEMA’s draft maps suggest, details of how the city intends to repair the levee during a breach, and a breakdown of the city’s $357,251 cost estimate to replace the Veteran’s Court seawall. 

However, the city’s decision to appeal not only will delay addressing its potential flooding problems but also could impact Alameda’s ability to finance them. The city decided to take $75,000 to $80,000 from its stormwater fund to pay for preparing the appeal.

And it could take some time for FEMA to respond to the port and the city’s appeal and finalize the maps. In January, port spokesperson Marilyn Sandifur said the port is “still in the process with FEMA and sharing information. There has been no final determination.”

Alameda leaders, meanwhile, are casting around for broader solutions to the growing problem of rising seas. Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft noted that the council endorsed Measure AA, a first-of-its-kind initiative on the June 2016 ballot that will use parcel tax revenues to pay for a suite of wetlands and habitat restoration projects throughout the Bay Area. She pointed out that the city is a member of Adapting to Rising Tides, a San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission program in which local, regional, state, and federal agencies plan projects collaboratively along the Alameda County shoreline to help address sea-level rise.

Public Work’s Kozisek also participates in the San Francisco Bay Region Coastal Hazards Adaption Resiliency Group, a coalition of engineers, planners, scientists, and policymakers engaged in developing and implementing regional flood protection solutions to sea-level rise and extreme tides. “Everyone on the bay is in this together, and every city along the bay needs more reinforcement,” Kozisek said.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

Climate experts say sea levels could rise by as much as 8 feet by the end of the century.

​Ashcraft said she agrees with city staffers who strongly believe that regional solutions and partnerships are the key to addressing sea-level rise. “As staff notes, we’ve learned that no one entity has the solution to sea-level rise, nor can any single entity be protected from sea-level rise without the help of many others,” she said.

But Beusterien is frustrated by the “glacial pace” at which he feels the city is responding to the threats it’s facing. “We need to invest in solutions, and we need to encourage Public Works to make these investments,” he said.

But even if Alameda is successful in convincing FEMA to reduce the numbers of properties within its 100-year flood zone, thereby saving hundreds of property owners from having to buy flood insurance, there’s a bigger-picture problem that isn’t going away: Changes in climate and sea levels will intensify in the coming decades, especially if humankind fails to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And coastal communities now face an uphill climb in terms of finding financially sustainable solutions to these challenges, considering the fact that President Donald Trump believes climate change is a hoax and wants to gut the nation’s environmental protections.

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