Council considers sea rise protections for Alameda Point

Council considers sea rise protections for Alameda Point

Michele Ellson

The City Council on Tuesday tackled the impacts of anticipated sea level rise at Alameda Point – and specifically, the task of figuring out how much protection to erect, and when.

“You’re essentially buying an insurance policy. And the City Council needs to decide how much you want to pay up front, and how much you want to pay over time,” Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott said.

City staffers are proposing a system of wetlands, berms and levies to protect the Point from rising seas that could inundate most of the former Naval air station by the end of the century – protections that they estimate will cost $175 million to construct. Ott said the money to pay for the protections will come from land sales and fees assessed to residents and businesses that settle at the Point, and that the city would also seek out grant funding to help cover flood protection costs.

Separately, the Department of Veterans affairs plans to raise the grade of the 112-acre Point property it wants to build clinics and an above-ground cemetery on by 1.3 feet to 2.3 feet, a final environmental assessment for the project released this month says. It says it will raise the grade of the property from 11.2 feet above sea level to between 12.5 feet and 13.5 feet.

Ott had originally proposed protections that would keep the Point dry for a sea level rise of up to 18 inches – an amount we could see as soon as 2048, based on estimates – but on Tuesday she proposed a plan to expand those initial protections to shield the former Navy base from up to two feet of sea level rise, in response to concerns offered by Planning Board members and Point watchers that the flood protections the city was proposing wouldn’t be enough.

“(T)o date our city has not discussed what the right sea level rise timeframe is for planning at Alameda Point,” Planning Board member John Knox White wrote in an e-mail to City Council members Monday, which said two-thirds of the board had questioned whether the city’s plans included strong enough protections. “There are significant moral issues involved in this determination, including: if a new community is to be built at the Point, is less than 35 years enough of a buffer for protecting it?”

Knox White said waiting to provide a higher level of protection until it is needed could be costly and disruptive for people who settle at the Point.

The additional protections, which could guard against sea level rise for at least another dozen years based on those estimates, will add an estimated $8 million in costs - money Ott said the city would seek to raise after the initial protections to hold off 18 inches of rising tide are put in place. The new proposal would extend a proposed levee along the southeastern edge of the Point as funding becomes available.

The city’s original draft plans would have seen nearly 1.8 million cubic yards of fill trucked or barged to the Point to raise areas slated for development by 18 inches and erected a levee to protect buildings slated for reuse. A corner of the Seaplane Lagoon and part of the Northwest Territories would be allowed to flood, offering wetlands that could serve as a buffer between rising seas and development.

Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission said the decisions the council makes for Alameda Point could have citywide implications.

“This is a significant matter for the future that we need to consider now,” he said.

The proposed sea level rise protections are based on projections that show tides rising by anywhere from 11 inches to 66 inches by 2100, Ott said Tuesday; the median of all the estimates the city has relied on in making its projections have 18 inches of sea level rise occurring by 2066 and 24 inches by 2081.

Sea level rise of up to 55 inches, the high end of an earlier estimate offered by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, would flood most of Alameda Point under current conditions. Since the Point effectively sits at sea level now and is underlain by a series of shoddy, poorly maintained storm drains, it is already subject to flooding during heavy rains.

In deciding how much protection to propose and when, Ott said the city is trying to balance long-term protection of Alameda Point with the cost of providing those protections and a desire to get development started quickly. City staffers who are spearheading the Point redevelopment process want to see the first shovels of dirt turned there in 2015.

Ott said it will be easier to raise the grade of new development pads piecemeal. But it will take time to collect enough money to erect the proposed levee – a hurdle city staffers don’t think the city should wait to clear before starting development.

But finding developers willing to fund protections for the Point’s existing buildings – particularly buildings that may remain atop toxics or are deeply deteriorated – could pose a huge challenge, said Richard Bangert, a veteran Point-watcher who sits on a citizen board that oversees the Navy’s toxic cleanup efforts and writes a blog about the Point.

“The less desirable areas won't be generating money for the infrastructure fund, but sea level will nonetheless keep rising,” Bangert said when asked by a reporter to outline his sea level rise concerns.

Council members – who no longer have the power to issue bonds against future property tax revenues to pay for roads, utilities and the proposed flood protections – agreed that more protections should be provided up front. But they said they wanted to make sure that everyone at the Point pays their fair share of the flood protection tab.

“You don’t want to get into a situation where the developer at the end of the line pays a larger burden for infrastructure. Or a situation where early adopters end up paying a larger share,” Mayor Marie Gilmore said.

Ott said the effort to balance the costs and construction of flood protection will be tough to calibrate.

“It is a risk,” Ott said. “We don’t know for sure how fast sea level rise is going to occur.”

But failing to address that risk adequately could be a disaster for Alameda Point, Bangert said.

“The downside to being optimistic about the rate of sea level rise is that it could be economically disastrous for the Point if our infrastructure fund is underfunded just as the need for increasing our protective measures is staring us in the face,” he said.