Climate adaptations lagging, jury finds

09/16/2020

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury is urging jurisdictions countywide to join together to develop a comprehensive climate change adaptation strategy. In a report published last week, the jury found that efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions in Marin have been successful, but that the necessary adaptation of public infrastructure and safety programs is lagging. 

The outlook of the 20-member investigative body was grim. “Over the lifetime of a child born in 2020, Marin County will be profoundly affected by climate change,” the jury wrote. “Today’s heavily populated shoreline areas will either be inundated by rising sea levels or be shielded by large sea walls. Highways will be rerouted or re-engineered. The vegetation on Mount Tamalpais will be altered. Health systems will be stressed. Socioeconomic inequities will worsen.”

It continued, “We can lessen the severity of those impacts through concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to sequester carbon. But we cannot reverse the trend.” 

The Sept. 11 report, “Climate Change: How Will Marin Adapt?” chiefly recommends the creation of a new task force of representatives from county government, cities and towns as well as from the public. Its primary objective would be to write a countywide adaptation plan. Although various county-led planning efforts are already underway in Marin, the jury notes that none of them have met a state mandate to update the county’s general plan to include “a set of adaptation and resilience goals, policies and objectives,” as well as implementation measures. Unincorporated Marin, and the cities and towns that have their own plans, must comply with the legislation by 2022.

The task force ideally would have a combination of technical and planning skills as well as public engagement expertise and financial know-how, the jury says. The report recommended that the task force have a leader who is able to make recommendations or have access to decision-makers. “As the initial stage of its work, the task force would define the vision for the planning project and the expected outcomes, with the primary objective being the creation of a countywide adaptation strategy,” the jury concluded.

The jury puts adaptation, as opposed to mitigation, into the forefront in part because mitigation efforts—which gathered momentum back in 2002—have already been relatively effective. As a result of government and private-sector investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, alternative fuel vehicles, water conservation and waste minimization, the county achieved its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 15 percent below 1990 levels in 2012 for the unincorporated area—eight years ahead of schedule. 

Marin is on track to double that reduction by the end of the year; at that time, it will release an updated climate action plan with new targets for 2030.

 Marin’s cities and towns, which have their own climate action plans, have made similar progress. 

Adaptation planning in Marin didn’t begin until more recently. In 2014, the county formed the Collaboration: Sea-Level Marin Adaptation Response Team, or C-SMART, to research the potential impacts of sea-level rise on West Marin and to work with coastal communities to plan for those impacts. The response team published a vulnerability assessment and an adaptation report within the last several years, but county staff must complete an update to the Local Coastal Program with the California Coastal Commission before creating a final adaptation plan. That update has been stalled for many years by disagreements between county planners and coastal commission staff.

The C-SMART vulnerability report, first presented to supervisors in 2015, identified the threat of sea-level rise for different assets—parcels, buildings, transportation, utilities, working lands, natural resources, recreation, emergency services, and historic and archaeological resources—and for the specific communities of Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Inverness, Tomales Bay’s east shore, Point Reyes Station and Dillon Beach.

It found that around 1,300 parcels, 1,000 buildings, 20 miles of roads, 1,800 acres of wetlands and numerous other assets could be exposed to sea-level rise and storms by 2100.

The adaptation report, which was brought before supervisors in 2017, discussed protecting those assets through building elevation, floodproofing and nature-based strategies in the near to medium term. For the long term, solutions like elevating and armoring roads as well as developing new wastewater treatment systems were fleshed out.

The county completed a similar but separate initiative for Marin’s eastern shoreline, dubbed the BayWAVE program, but the jury argues there were several deficiencies in both planning efforts. First, the county focused on sea-level rise while ignoring other climate-change impacts such as health risks, ecological impacts and socioeconomic inequities. Second, there was inadequate staffing and collaboration between the two county departments—the Community Development Agency and the Department of Public Works—that tackled the projects.

In addition to creating the task force, the jury recommends establishing a new sustainability and resilience office, which would be charged with managing and coordinating climate-change mitigation and adaptation planning and programs across county departments, and with identifying and cultivating sources of funding for these programs.

“A dire need for funding has not confronted the county yet because Marin has yet to complete its adaptation planning or develop any timeline for implementation; but as it tackles the large public works projects that will be needed in the future, adequate staff resources and funding expertise will become critical,” the jury says.

Apart from the county’s efforts, some cities and towns, such as Corte Madera, Belvedere and San Rafael, have taken independent adaptation planning steps within the last year. The jury sees these initiatives as building blocks but stresses the importance of a unified adaptation plan. “We breathe the same air, drive the same roads, benefit from common watersheds, and share central sanitation facilities, all without regard to the boundaries of our city or town or our neighborhood geography,” the report states.

The primary unifier would be the task force, though the jury points to two existing models of countywide collaboration that could serve as its building blocks: the Marin Climate and Energy Partnership and Marin’s eight designated flood control and water conservation districts.

The jury recommends that the Marin Climate and Energy Partnership—which targets lowering emissions and includes representatives of the county’s 11 municipalities, the Transportation Authority of Marin and the Marin Municipal Water District—expand its mission to include adaptation and support the new task force, including to formulate land use and zoning regulations.

Should the task force not be formed, the jury presented the partnership as an existing alternative that could be expanded upon and serve the same function. 

The jury also thought that Marin’s flood control and water conservation districts—which receive property tax funds to pay for flood-control projects—should be reorganized and revamped in order to support the task force, particularly related to implementation. 

“Although Marin’s [districts are] not charged explicitly with combating sea level rise or other climate change effects, increased flooding is certainly one result of extreme rainfall and weather events. In that sense, the [districts are] already aligned with climate change adaptation,” the jury wrote.

The first objective for the new task force, the jury said, should be commissioning a feasibility study that explores reconfiguring the flood districts into a multi-jurisdictional agency that would be responsible for planning, funding and implementing public works projects related to sea-level rise. 

The jury requested responses to the report from all governing bodies in Marin, and asked the Board of Supervisors specifically to establish the new task force and form the sustainability office. The jury also recommended that each city and town appoint a full-time sustainability coordinator, charged with monitoring and reporting on climate-change mitigation and adaptation efforts. 

“Property owners and government officials will be facing hard choices. What losses are we willing to accept? How much are we willing to pay? What options do we really have? Nobody has all the answers, but we as a community need to aggressively, deliberately, and cooperatively organize and plan to meet the climate threat,” the jury advised in its concluding remarks.