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Adaptation Planning for Sea Level Rise in San Mateo County: An Examination of 11 Bayside Cities

Undergraduate Practicum - Winter 2018
Alex Enrique, Isabelle Foster, and Will La Dow
San Mateo County Office of Sustainability

Located between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, San Mateo County (SMC) is often referred to as ‘Ground Zero’ for sea level rise (SLR) vulnerability. Estimates predict that a mid-level scenario with 3.3 feet of sea rise in the County will impact about 22,000 acres of land, 30,600 residential parcels, 5 wastewater facilities and more.1 To confront this significant threat, in 2017, the County’s Office of Sustainability commissioned and published a draft Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment to identify and assess risks within its 455 square miles of land.2

The County is now beginning a second phase that is focused on developing actionable steps to proactively address SLR. Creating an adaptation framework is critical to this next phase of the County’s work. According to County staff, when complete, the adaptation framework is intended to guide decision-makers responsible for adapting to the risks of SLR by:

A. Synthesizing key climate change impacts projected within the County;
Describing and discussing the County’s goals and objectives related to adaptation; C. Outlining the County’s approach to identifying, planning, and selecting adaptation strategies to address climate change impacts.

This adaptation framework is intended to be a countywide resource that facilitates coordinated action among and across different levels of government along the coastal and bayside area of the County. Because the County’s jurisdiction is limited to only unincorporated areas, the County is interested in learning how it can advance SLR planning by working together with its 13 incorporated bayside and coastal cities that individually determine permitted land use within their boundaries.

As the Office of Sustainability begins work on this climate change adaptation framework, the County has requested assistance from Stanford Public Policy to understand and synthesize the cities’ plans for future land use along the San Francisco Bay, determine what goals and priorities the adaptation framework should incorporate, and how to engage stakeholders within the County to inform SLR planning about adaptation planning. Acting as consultants on behalf of the County’s Office of Sustainability, our research focused on answering the following questions:

  • §  -  What, if any, SLR policies currently exist within the County’s 11 bayside cities? What areas are planned for development? 

    §  -  How can the perspectives of local stakeholders inform what the County adopts as its values and priorities for SLR planning? 

    §  -  How should the County approach choices about adaptation strategies (accommodation/protection/retreat) based on the experiences of other jurisdictions that are farther along with SLR planning?

Our research and the following report provide recommendations to inform the creation of a county-wide adaptation plan. The key findings can be summarized, as follows:

  1. In developing strategies for SLR adaptation, other cities across the U.S. have created a guiding mission statement that outlines a vision for how their city will look in the future. San Mateo County can similarly guide development by establishing a clear timeframe for achieving SLR adaptation planning milestones.

  2. As part of our analysis, our team created a matrix that assesses cities based on their risk and preparedness levels. Using this matrix, the County can prioritize efforts and resources to work with two groups of high-risk cities. Redwood City, Burlingame, and Foster City have been early leaders with SLR planning, and the County can consolidate these cities’ SLR strategies and policies, which can serve as a resource for the rest of the County. At the same time, the County can also focus on San Mateo, East Palo Alto, and Menlo Park, which are cities that lacked actionable SLR-related policies and would benefit from additional County guidance to help further enhance their projects and efforts to mitigate SLR impacts.

  3. Cities within SMC have acknowledged SLR as a threat; however, most treatment of this topic has been exploratory and does not specify actionable steps for policymakers to address SLR. This provides an opportunity for the County to facilitate coordinated future action and fulfill stakeholder requests for more cross-city collaboration.

Increased awareness and discussion of SLR has provided an impetus for more cities to start thinking about rising sea levels and how they can adapt. As a result, many cities have expressed a desire for more guidance on how to plan for this environmental challenge. Our research and analysis reveal that SMC is uniquely positioned to facilitate coordinated action within the County. By prioritizing work with San Mateo, East Palo Alto, and Menlo Park and sharing the lessons learned from early actions of Redwood City, Burlingame, and Foster City, the County can help guide all cities and create a more cohesive, unified effort. Our examination of six external jurisdictions reveals the importance of regional cooperation, long-term planning timelines, specific and technical construction plans, extensive community outreach, consideration of equity and the environment, and community SLR mapping tools. These lessons can be integrated into the County’s adaptation framework and considerations moving forward.

Building upon our analysis and recommendations, the County should also consider expanding our work by replicating our analysis for coastal cities. Since SLR is a dynamic threat, it would be valuable to forecast how unexpected changes might influence progress towards developing SLR strategies. Accounting for macro-factors, such as economic recessions and natural disasters, could be defer needed SLR planning, as these changes affect existing infrastructure and future construction projects. Similarly, changes in the political context--at the federal, state, as well as city level--could greatly affect progress and interest in SLR adaptation. Awareness by staff and policymakers of these different conditions in the future could increase the effectiveness and longevity of the County’s adaptation framework.