Fighting sea level rise the natural way

An interview by Lori Pottinger, Public Policy Institute of California, February 3, 2020

PPIC interviewed Letitia Grenier, a member of PPIC’s Water Policy Center research network and a senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute. Below are selections from the interview.

“We tend to think of climate change as causing a slow, linear rise in sea level, but it’s not always gradual … We could see quick changes and sudden jumps in sea level.

“Rising seas will affect how we manage runoff from major storms. It’s not enough to manage water coming down rivers and rising from groundwater — we also have to account for concurrent king tides and storm surges … [and] build infrastructure that … takes into account flooding from behind and below.

“Our water infrastructure was developed to address specific issues … [without] figuring out how to make the overall watershed work well for all the things we need it to do. Instead, we optimized the system in each location for one function.

“There is huge potential to redesign systems to let natural processes help us solve some of our complicated problems.

“Compared to a concrete flood basin, a marsh provides not just flood protection but also creates habitat for at-risk species, protects the shoreline, sequesters carbon, filters and breaks down contaminants, and creates recreational opportunities. And traditional engineered infrastructure has a lifespan… In contrast, ecosystems are always changing; they can adapt in ways that engineered solutions can’t.

“We also need to work across jurisdictions… Our current system has too many agencies with missions that aren’t well aligned. So we’ll need to voluntarily coordinate to make our watersheds work as they should — and provide incentives to bring agencies together over watershed planning. It will take time to make this change, and … these big social challenges are harder to resolve than the science side.”

Read the PPIC interview here.