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Sea Level Summit: 'San Mateo County Most Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise, Flooding'

Experts say the sea level in San Mateo County is indeed rising and that it's not as important to determine when, but rather how the region can protect itself.

Sea Level Summit: 'San Mateo County Most Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise, Flooding'
         
A regional or countywide flood protection district dedicated to sea level disaster preparations should be assembled immediately, according to a group of nearly 400 people who packed a College of San Mateo auditorium Monday.
           
The group assembled to attend a four-hour conference titled "Meeting the Challenge of Sea Level Rise in San Mateo County," which was presented by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, in conjunction with San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park,
who chairs the state select committee on Sea Level Rise and the California
Economy.
           
Experts from local, state and federal agencies, including representatives from San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and the California State Coastal Conservancy, presented information that contributed to the overall consensus that the sea level is indeed rising and that it's not as important to determine when, but rather how the region can protect itself.
           
With 240 square miles of filled land and 1,100 miles of California coastline, San Mateo County is among the most at risk when it comes to flood vulnerability. Notably, speakers highlighted the risk of the county's shoreline assets and how detrimental it could be if a high tide swept over the region, taking with it one of the nation's most thriving economic engines.
           
Gordon, whose state select committee on Sea Level Rise and the California Economy plans to issue a report at the end of January, said, "I have looked at the issues across the state and there is no region more impacted than the San Mateo County coastal zone."
           
Oceanographer and keynote speaker, John Englander, author of High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis, said that the rise in sea level is inevitable and warned of looming climate changes such as extreme tides and severe storms. Englander said that regardless of what people do to decrease global warming, the efforts would not be enough to prevent what is foreseeable.
           
"It's time to think that it's three feet of sea rise. We're going to get three feet of sea level rise and instead of figuring out when, let's think, what are we going to do when three feet shows up," Englander said.
           
Englander suggested that people learn to make adaptations and create strategies to combat catastrophe.
           
Will Travis, former executive director of BCDC and now a consultant who focuses on sea level rise adaptation planning said that in order to meet the challenges of climate change, people need to more aggressively reduce greenhouse gasses and manage the unavoidable by adjusting to the impacts. He said that preparation plus adaptation will equal prosperity.
           
As much of the conference focused on the certainty of rising sea level, a concerned Burlingame vice mayor spoke up.
           
"I've heard a lot of challenged but not many options," Michael Brownrigg said. "What do I do about it?"
           
BCDC Executive Director Larry Goldzband suggested that California develop a statewide-integrated process that spurs the topic of jurisdiction. He said that an overall Bay Area strategy that incorporates all counties that touch the bay would benefit the entire region.
           
Goldzband discussed a collaborative planning effort his organization has begun called, Adapting to Rising Tides, or ART. The pilot program's goal is to increase the Bay Area's preparedness and resilience to sea level tide and storm event flooding while protecting its infrastructure, ecosystems and services.
           
"The best way to get to a solution is to start working together," Goldzband said.
           
Speier, who along with Pine and Gordon moderated two panel discussions, said she plans to work to help residents with preparations in addition to the effects of sea level rise.
           
"We've got to get more clout in the region than we have, we need a flood protection agency in San Mateo County," one that will aid in pre-flooding preparations not just after the fact, she said.
           
Julian Potter, chief of staff with SFO, said with eight miles of shoreline on the Bayside around the airport, officials at SFO are well aware of its risks and vulnerability to flooding.
           
Potter said the airport began in January a two-year study to analyze drainage and coastal conditions and to develop adaptation plans.
           
But, she said, it is integral that the SFO's neighboring municipalities band together with the airport to develop protection and preparation plans.
           
Pine said he hopes to create a task force and hold another more focused meeting on the issue in the spring.
           
"This is just the start of a dialogue," Pine said. "Our Katrina could happen and we need to make sure we're ready for it."

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