Opinion: Governor should help California cities protect against flooding

Legislation would require cities to create effective shoreline resilience plans

The series of strong storms that hit California this winter brought not only heavy rain, devastating flooding, and tragic loss of life, but also a growing awareness that the state urgently needs to protect itself from the flood effects of climate change.

Rainfall inundated coastal areas, foreshadowing where rising seas will soon bring more frequent flooding. These areas face a bleak future as climate change brings more frequent and intense storms. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom has the opportunity to take an important step toward protecting communities from these floods by signing legislation requiring cities to develop effective shoreline resilience plans.

Most cities are aware that rising sea levels and climate-induced storm activity pose increasing risks to people, property, and nature, and some have begun to identify vulnerable areas and plan for rising tides and storm water management. Hayward implemented a Shoreline Adaptation Master Plan that prioritizes wetland restoration. San Francisco established a Waterfront Resilience Program, and voters approved a bond measure to begin rebuilding the Embarcadero seawall.

However, many of the Bay Area’s cities and counties lack the political will and resources to face this challenge. The challenge is massive and costly, but delaying action will cost even more.

According to a recent report by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), protecting the Bay Area from these flood risks will cost more than $110 billion. With nearly 500,000 Bay Area residents already living in a FEMA-designated flood zone, preparing for sea-level rise and future flood risk should be a regional priority.

We will not achieve regional protection and resilience if we leave this planning to individual cities without coordination and consistency. Instead, we will exacerbate the “governance gap” — the gap between our recognition of a shared problem and the ability of government agencies to coordinate solutions across jurisdictions.

The bill on the governor’s desk fills this void by empowering BCDC as the Bay Area agency to develop a single regional standard and set of local guidelines to ensure that cities’ shoreline resilience plans are consistent. It also establishes a deadline for cities to finish their plans. The Coastal Commission would oversee resilience plans for Pacific Ocean cities. This approach can close the planning gap and accelerate protection of the Bay Area’s and California’s coast’s most vulnerable communities.

Senator John Laird, the bill’s author, actually led the legislature to pass a similar version of SB 272 last year with broad bipartisan support, but Governor Newsom vetoed it, claiming the cost to cities was too high. The new language in the bill should address that concern, allowing cities to accelerate preparations now and avoid the much higher costs of failing to protect against rising tides and extreme storms.

Flood waters will exploit any vulnerabilities, but by signing this bill, Governor Newsom can begin to close a significant gap in our flood defenses, allowing the Bay Area and the state to keep rising tides and storm flooding at bay.

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