Calif. Agency Considers Climate Change In Its Plans

fromKQED

Officials in California caution that rising sea levels could inundate the shoreline of San Francisco Bay, including the San Francisco International Airport and several Silicon Valley companies. A state planning agency votes on rules that would limit new construction around the bay on Thursday. That's inspired a fierce battle with the business community.

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Here in California, a state planning agency votes today on rules that would limit new construction on the San Francisco Bay waterfront. Officials say rising sea levels could inundate the shoreline, affecting the San Francisco airport and Silicon Valley. But their effort to limit construction has provoked fierce opposition from the business community.

Lauren Sommer of member station KQED reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING NOISE)

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: For more than a century, this patch of land on the southern edge of San Francisco Bay has been home to one thing: salt.

DAVID SMITH: As you look out, you can see it looks sort of like a frozen pond.

SOMMER: David Smith is standing next to flat, industrial ponds that are part of Cargill's salt-harvesting operation. But Smith is with DMB Associates, a developer that has different vision for these 1,400 acres.

SMITH: Welcome to the Redwood City Saltworks site.

SOMMER: Saltworks is DMB's proposal for eight to 12,000 new housing units on the shoreline. Smith says the housing is sorely needed in the Bay Area.

SMITH: You have had the explosion of economic success of Silicon Valley. We should be ashamed of our inability to provide housing to support those workers.

DAVID LEWIS: This site is not a site for housing.

SOMMER: David Lewis is the executive director of Save the Bay.

LEWIS: Salt ponds in Redwood City are actually one of the last unprotected areas that could be restored to tidal marsh.

SOMMER: It seems like a pretty typical story: A developer wants waterfront property to build on, and environmental groups want to see wildlife habitat restored. But there's a twist: The Saltworks site is right in the path of rising sea levels, according to state scientists. The developers say they'd build a three-mile levee to protect the area from the bay, which is projected to rise between three and almost six feet by the end of the century.

WILL TRAVIS: We'd like to ignore it. But if we ignore it, we're ignoring it at our own economic peril.

SOMMER: Will Travis is the executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or BCDC. It's the state agency with jurisdiction over the bay. It's drafted a first-of-its kind policy in California that links sea-level rise with regional planning. It discourages building in low-lying areas and encourages wetland restoration.

TRAVIS: Wetlands are wonderful for dealing with climate change. Wetlands soak up floodwater. So the wider the wetland in the front, the lower the levee can be in the back.

SOMMER: But when BCDC released the first draft of the plan two years ago, the agency faced a wave of protest.

JIM WUNDERMAN: It tried to do too much, too fast.

SOMMER: Jim Wunderman is president of the Bay Area Council, a group representing business interests.

WUNDERMAN: We should be absolutely concerned about sea-level rise, but we shouldn't allow the concern about it to say, well, let's just stop doing everything.

SOMMER: A number of bay-front cities had the same complaint. Public meetings got ugly.

WUNDERMAN: People said things that they probably weren't proud of when the meeting was over, and I know we've had epithets hurled at us.

SOMMER: So the planning commission backed off a little, saying that new development would be considered on a case-by-case basis. Environmental groups pushed back, saying the policy will lead the way for cities and counties that don't have the resources to plan for sea-level rise themselves. Will Travis of BCDC says they've tried to strike a balance.

TRAVIS: A society likes dealing with climate change at the abstract. It's when you actually get down to doing something about it that people have concerns.

SOMMER: The challenge, Travis says, is making a global issue like climate change part of local planning.

TRAVIS: We want to achieve environmental protection. We have to, but not at the expense of regional prosperity.

SOMMER: The Bay Conservation and Development Commission will vote later today on the policy that will shape development along San Francisco Bay for years to come. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer, in San Francisco.

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