A Humbolt County staff report states that sea level rise is “a significant threat to every aspect of life on the North Coast” but opinions on how to react to it are divided.
Based on a “vulnerability assessment” by hydrologist Aldaron Laird, a staff report prepared for the county’s Planning Commission describes inundation risks in the unincorporated areas surrounding Humboldt Bay. The shoreline’s “vulnerability tipping point” is between two to three feet of sea level rise and those benchmarks are projected for 2050 and 2070 respectively.
The report envisions the impacts that could be seen by 2070: “Fifty-nine percent (33 miles) of barrier-like shoreline structures (dikes, railroad and road grades) on Humboldt Bay could be breached or be overtopped by approximately three feet of sea level rise, placing thousands of acres and critical regional assets at risk.”
Those assets include King Salmon’s only access road, PG&E’s spent nuclear fuel storage site, areas of Highway 101, State Route 255 at the Mad River bottom, the Humboldt Bay Trail, 9.6 miles of water transmission lines, 30 electrical transmission towers and 113 transmission poles, the north and south jetties and three of the bay’s 10 bulk cargo/commercial docks.
The report also estimates that 62 percent of the ag lands in the county’s Humboldt Bay planning area would be inundated by king tides if three feet of sea level rise happens.
The inundation would also envelop 32 percent of the bay area’s industrial/commercial properties, 29 percent of its coastal-dependent industrial properties, 17 percent of its public facilities and 11 percent of its residential parcels.
The report sets forth a variety of policy options in response but when it was workshopped at the November 15 commission meeting, Planning Director John Ford carefully pointed out that the planning is in a formative stage.
“I want to take the pressure off tonight’s discussion – we’re not trying to adopt policy here, we’re trying to begin a dialogue about sea level rise,” he said.
Ford added that “one of the things we also are not trying to do is prove whether or not sea level rise exists, we know that there are divergent opinions on that.”
Before commissioners arrived at that debate, there were allusions to the potential economic losses of sea level rise policy-making.
As commissioners considered a policy to plan for the highest inundation level scenario, Commissioner Mike Newman said he’s concerned that the planning period “is pretty open.”
Senior Planner Lisa Shikany said an “adaptive management” approach can be followed, with an eye on the forecasted future.
She gave a hypothetical example of a public facility like a wastewater plant being in the inundation zone. “That doesn’t mean that we will move it now or that we wouldn’t protect it to the extent feasible,” Shikany told commissioners.
But she added that part of the planning is realizing that at some point asset protection may not be practical. “So where might we relocate that plant – and if there’s only one or two options, we may not want to approve a subdivision there now,” she said.
The Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce has written a letter to the county expressing concerns about a sea level rise overlay zone and during public comment, Scott Pesch, a Eureka-based realtor, said the zone “goes a long way and I guess there’s a concern initially about insurance possibilities here that might affect the private property owners of these areas.”
Pesch added that there’s also concern about a policy option to restrict life-extending improvements to existing development.
Commissioner Ben Shepherd recommended considering “triggers” that would spur policy actions. “If we focus on, not dates but on specific levels, then it’s not an issue of whether you believe in it or don’t believe in it,” he said.
He added, “I can see a lot of people getting uncomfortable when you say – Well, greenhouse gas is leading to … -- that is, I think, where we’re going to end up with issues.”
Commissioner Brian Mitchell emphasized the importance of the planning effort. “I feel that climate change and specifically sea level rise is an undisputable situation that is happening,” he said, adding that even agencies within the Trump administration and the U.S. military acknowledge it.
Commissioner Noah Levy thanked Mitchell for his comments. “It does our community a disservice if we act like ‘well, maybe it’s rising, maybe it’s not, there’s some dispute,’” Levy said. “It’s a fact – we don’t know exactly when certain thresholds are going to be met but the trajectory is there and we should not be shy about saying the sea is rising on Humboldt Bay.”
There was debate, however. “I’m not saying you’re right or you’re wrong,” said Commissioner Alan Bongio. “But what if we are wrong, what if the science isn’t right and what if we put an overlay zone and the sea rise doesn’t happen.”
If so, “All these people that have these lands will not have the opportunity to do whatever they were going to do,” he continued.
Bongio said he doesn’t “buy in” to the climate change warnings that get “shoved down our throat on a daily basis” because “you can get whatever results you want if you get the right scientists to go along with you – you fund them, give them grants, you can get what you want and we’ve seen both sides of it.”
Levy said he wants to be careful about policymaking but he took exception to the characterization of climate change findings being purchased.
Commission Chair Bob Morris questioned whether “this is the proper place for this discussion” and moved the meeting on.
Ford said the next step will be to set a schedule for continuing the workshop and “beginning to engage the public discussion” on sea level rise planning.
It’s especially critical for the Humboldt Bay area, whose land is sinking due to subduction and has the highest rate of sea level rise on the U.S. West Coast.