FOSTER CITY, a community of curving streets and cul-de-sacs, edges up to California’s San Francisco Bay. Built on wetlands that were drained and filled more than a century ago, the city was barely above sea level to begin with. Today, 34,000 people live in Foster City, and all that keeps water from pouring into their streets and neighborhoods is an earthen levee fortified by concrete and riprap. With climate change raising the sea level, this won’t be enough to protect the small city. So, in 2016, officials floated a plan to raise the levee. 

That worried Hank Ackerman, the flood-control program manager for Alameda County, which lies just across the bay from Foster City. Ackerman wrote in a 2017 letter that he was “very concerned” that raising the levee could shift floodwaters to Alameda County much of whose 36 miles of shoreline is densely populated. He cited research showing that raising seawalls in one area can simply transfer the rising waters elsewhere. “To address sea-level rise jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction will result in an acceleration in the adverse impacts to other entities around the Bay,” Ackerman concluded.

But Foster City moved forward anyway, and in 2018 passed a $90 million levee bond, putting it on track to be the first municipality around the bay with comprehensive shoreline protections against sea-level rise. Alameda County and other local jurisdictions have no recourse against such unilateral actions.

The San Francisco Bay Area has 101 municipalities across the nine counties that ring the bay, and each is like a little kingdom. “Cities are self-interested actors. It’s not natural for them to cooperate,” said Mark Lubell, director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of California, Davis. “Local governments really hate being told what to do.” In their defense, local governments also bear full responsibility for protecting their constituents from sea-level rise.

The water keeps rising, shrinking the window for implementing solutions. Sea-level rise already threatens the bay shore, which, at about 500 miles, is half the length of the entire California coast. The worst is yet to come: The Bay Area needs to plan for a 2-foot rise by 2050 and up to 7 feet by 2100.

In a 2019 survey, Lubell found that Bay Area leaders overwhelmingly agreed that the biggest barrier to addressing sea-level rise is the lack of a regional plan. For years, no one had stepped up to lead such a plan — until now.

STRICTLY SPEAKING, San Francisco Bay is an estuary. This configuration can cause ripple effects at surprising scales: When seawalls are taller in one part of the bay, water can surge over lower walls in a completely different part. The lowest-lying stretches of shoreline already flood during intense storms and the highest of high tides.

Now, in the first bay-wide effort to protect shorelines from rising waters, Jessica Fain, who helped New York City recover from Hurricane Sandy, is convening stakeholders to find common ground. “It’s a tricky issue,” said Fain, a planner at the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which regulates land use along the bay. “How do you get adjacent jurisdictions to talk to each other? At this point, it’s optional.” Fain hopes that giving all stakeholders a voice will ensure buy-in. “Coordination is important, especially in a closed bay system,” she said, adding that while her agency has taken the lead on a regional plan, it has no authority to implement it — which means the plan still won’t be binding.

“How do you get adjacent jurisdictions to talk to each other? At this point, it’s optional.”

Jessica Fain, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission

Another worry, Fain says, is that without coordination and accountability across Bay Area towns and cities, wealthy residents will get outsized protection. San Rafael, a city on San Francisco Bay in Marin County, is among the nation’s top 10 richest. But San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood is home to 12,000 people, most of them Latinx living in apartments on incomes below the poverty line. The neighborhood is also one of the first here that will be hit by sea-level rise, projected to be submerged as soon as 2030.

Marco Berger, the community resilience coordinator at the Multicultural Center of Marin, worries that Canal neighborhood residents will face both brunt of sea-level rise and displacement by gentrification. While property improvements like flood protection protect residents from the impacts of climate change, they can also drive up housing costs. “We want to create equity for the Canal neighborhood,” Berger said. “They usually don’t have a voice at the table.” 

Unifying all the voices around the bay on sea-level rise is an enormous task, yet Fain faces it with equanimity. “Sea-level rise can feel like a far-off problem — but it’s not when you look at the time it takes to plan large infrastructures,” Fain said. “We need to move on this.”

Robin Meadows is an independent science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives near the Suisun Marsh, the West Coast’s largest brackish wetland, which will be completely underwater with just another foot of sea-level rise.

This story was originally published in High Country News on June 2, 2020.