Port of San Francisco Grapples with Surging Sea

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By 2100, sea levels are expected to rise by four to seven feet along the stretch of Bay from Fisherman’s Wharf to Heron’s Head Park. If left unchecked, the rising waves will pollute drinking water with salt and other contaminants, flood buildings, homes, and infrastructure, and inundate roads, parks, and open space. 

The Port of San Francisco, which owns the impacted land, is floating seven possible strategies to adapt to the new sea normal. The options, A through G, would also help protect against earthquakes. The Port is surveying the public about the different approaches, which were drafted in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other municipal agencies, including the Planning Department and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The Port’s engagement efforts have so far included video conferences, walking tours of Mission Creek and Mission Bay, and community mixers held on the southern waterfront.

“The next step in the process will be evaluating the strategies using a series of metrics and frameworks in collaboration with our City and federal partners as well as the feedback we’ve heard from the community,” said Adam Varat, deputy program manager of planning for the Port of San Francisco’s Waterfront Resilience Program, which is leading the effort. “We will also develop preliminary cost estimates for the different strategies. Our target is spring 2023.” 

Roughly two-thirds of the funds needed to implement the ultimately selected strategy will come from the federal government, so long as the Corps’ is engaged in the project. The Corps has a long history of building coastal fortifications to protect cities from flooding. Last fall, the Biden Administration stated that in the future the Corps would principally rely on lower cost nature-based climate adaption approaches. These include using wetlands and native plants to manage stormwater in lieu of engineered management systems; and gardens to collect rainwater before it filters into the ground. 

The remaining one-third of the funds needed to implement adaptation strategies will have to be raised from other sources, such as developer fees, bond measures, and the state. 

The first three adaptation approaches involve modest actions, including Strategy B, under which buildings and infrastructure would be floodproofed, raised, or relocated. In Strategy C, the shoreline would be modified to withstand 1.5 feet of sea level rise, through such measures as elevating Islais Creek’s shoreline. 

The next four strategies are more intrusive. Strategy D, “Adaptable,” involves shoreline modifications to withstand even higher sea level rises. Strategy E, “Hold the Line,” would preserve the waterfront to look much as it does today by raising Bay and creek shorelines to defend against a 3.5 feet sea level rise. Strategy F, “Manage the Water,” would create systems to cope with flooding, such as tide gates. Strategy G, “Align with Natural Watersheds,” would work with natural inundation patterns by flood-proofing buildings and infrastructure or moving them from the highest risk areas. 

The Port is collaborating with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a member of the Bay Area Regional Collaborative, which includes the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Association of Bay Area Governments, and Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The Port is also consulting other jurisdictions experiencing sea level rise, such as New York and Seattle. 

According to Kris May, founder of Pathways Climate Institute, LLC, a contractor to the Port, sea change’s ecosystem implications will depend on how well the City and the Port plan and implement adaptation strategies. 

“Heron’s Head and the Pier 94 wetlands are both vital for many marine plants, as well as birds and other marine wildlife. These areas will need space to migrate inland as seas level rise or they could drown and disappear, particularly as sea level rise further accelerates after mid-century,” said May. 

Alice Rogers, president of the South Beach – Rincon – Mission Bay Neighborhood Association (SBRMB NA) and a member of the Port’s Waterfront Land Use Plan Update Advisory Committee, said that approaches will likely be neighborhood specific. 

“It seems the Central Waterfront, which is close to Downtown, will need hardscape solutions. It’s important that Muni and utility operations don’t get swamped. Along the Southern Waterfront, Recology and other businesses will need a different range of solutions to waterproof their operations or move them back from the water,” said Rogers. “Communities along the southern waterfront will likely need to find more open space opportunities if sea level rise subsumes a percentage of their parks.” 

Varat confirmed that some waterfront commons, including Crane Cove Park, would remain open to the public even as portions are submerged. 

“We don’t anticipate sea level rise will impact Oracle Park or Mission Rock for quite some time,” said Jack Bair, San Francisco Giants’ executive vice president and a Southern Waterfront Advisory Committee member. “We have also designed Mission Rock to be resilient, raising the site substantially in anticipation of sea level rise.” 

Ginny Stearns, who lives in a houseboat on Mission Creek, said she prefers a strategy involving tidal gates to permit Bay water to flow in and out of Mission Creek. 

“Alternatively, the Port could close off the creek and pump water out. It could make Mission Creek a park and build structures there. That would involve relocating the houseboat residents and destroying a special wetlands habitat. Our lease is up in 2055. Either way you cut it, pumping water in or filling the creek would prevent closing it off and it becoming a stinky marsh,” said Stearns.

“I am worried that strategies I’ve seen so far don’t address separating sewer water from stormwater and seawater,” said Elena Bondareva, a Mission Creek houseboat resident. “This mixing is an utter waste. I am also concerned about how it would affect us and other residents along the Southern Waterfront as the sea level rises.” 

Toby Levine, a Mission Bay resident who has been advising the Port about adaptation strategies since 2001, and is Southern Waterfront Advisory Committee member, said sea level rise could impact public transportation and the Financial District.

“If the repair yards and storage yards flood, how will we have BART and Muni continue? What do we do about Downtown buildings? Right now, many people still don’t see the big picture,” said Levine. “The public has to be fair and understanding with the Port. This is a huge task. Different groups throughout the City will need to compromise to reach a series of agreements.” 

Bradley Angel, director of Greenaction, a health and environmental justice nonprofit, said he’s concerned that the Port’s strategies fail to address the potential for contaminated water and soil from Port property and the Hunters Point Shipyard to spread into the Bay and through adjacent neighborhoods. 

“We are reaching out to the Port about how it, government agencies, and industry will address shoreline contamination and the threat posed by rising sea levels and groundwater,” said Angel.

Angel added that San Franciscans shouldn’t be asked to pay for adaptation through bonds.

“The energy industry, which has profited from the extraction of oil and is largely responsible for global warming, and the super-rich should pay this cost. Low income and working-class communities of color already bear the cost through the environmental contamination of communities,” said Angel. 

Susan Schwartzenberg, senior artist and curator at The Exploratorium, a Port tenant, said the museum is educating the public about the transformation of the City’s shoreline.

“The Exploratorium’s Bay Observatory is a gallery that brings the changes in the shoreline to life. We’re using exhibits with historic maps and tidal gauges to explain how sea level rise could change the Southern Waterfront,” said Schwartzenberg. 

The Exploratorium hosts walking tours led by the American Society of Landscape Architects to explain sea level rise to landscape architects and other professionals.

“In addition, we have a grant called Changing Coastlines through the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, which supports scientific discovery and environmental conservation…to work on educational exhibits and programs that discuss sea level rise. We’re talking with the Port about a potential partnership with San Francisco Unified School District on a teacher training program regarding sea level rise,” said Schwartzenberg.

Learn more about the Port of San Francisco’s Waterfront Resilience Program at: https://sfport.com/wrp