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On the Level
New amendments to San Francisco plan address climate change.
Sea level vulnerability map for the Bay area.
Courtesy SF Bay Conservation and Development Commission

On October 6 the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) unanimously approved an amendment to the San Francisco Bay Plan to address sea level rise. The plan, originally completed by BCDC in January 1969, includes policies to protect the Bay and guide development of the shoreline. It now more explicitly addresses the need to adapt local infrastructures, ecosystems, and communities to confront the effects of climate change.

According to the “Sea Level Rise Interim Guidance” document presented by the California Climate Action Team in 2010, about 330 square miles of low-lying land around the Bay area may be vulnerable to sea level rise over the next century. Local sea levels are expected to rise 10 to 17 inches by 2050, 17 to 32 inches by 2070, and 31 to 69 inches by the end of the century.

“With all the focus on climate change within the science community and the planning and design community it made sense for the Commission to take another look at its policies and see how to integrate this new scientific information to our current planning strategy,” said Joe LaClair, Chief Planning Officer at BCDC.

The maps detail areas potentially exposed to sea level rises between 16-inches and 55-inches.

The BCDC’s updated plan will, among other things, promote wetland protection by ensuring that buffer zones are incorporated into restoration projects situated on tidal marshes and tidal flats; protect the shoreline from future flooding through zoning and development regulations; limit permitting in vulnerable zones; and only provide public access to areas that are sited to avoid significant adverse impacts from sea-level rise.

The amendments, which still must be approved by the State Office of Administrative Law and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, won’t take effect until late this year or early 2012. But the commission has already asked a few development projects on the boards to address sea level rise. For instance San Francisco’s 535-acre Treasure Island/Yerba Buena Island project was elevated to allow for up to 16 inches of sea level rise, while wetlands have been incorporated into its northern section to act as buffers for tides.

The effect of sea level rise on planning and development has become a national issue as well. Last March the New York City Department of City Planning implemented a new waterfront plan, Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, a ten-year strategy for New York’s 520 miles of shoreline. The outline, which is the first citywide plan for the waterfront in nearly two decades and the first-ever comprehensive plan for the waterways themselves, increases the city’s adaptability to climate change and sea level rise through the restoration and improvement of natural waterfront areas along the New York Harbor, including more water transport, increased public access and economic development along the working waterfront.

Danielle Rago