Water from above, water from below

As you would expect, water dominates the landscape here in San Francisco Bay. Look one way and you look across the Pacific Ocean. Look another and you see the Bay. Look above and you see it in the air, either as rain (mostly in the winter) or as fog (mostly in the summer… well… anytime really!). But, there is even water under our feet here: Groundwater.

IMG_2421.JPGGroundwater is water held underground in the soil or in pores and crevices in rock. While groundwater only supplies 1% of San Francisco’s municipal water supply, it is exceptionally important. And it’s getting even more so…

Last night was the next installment of the Exploratorium Environment Group’s “Conversations about Reliance” programme, in partnership with ‘Resilient By Design’. Again this was held in the Bay Observatory. I documented the previous one on sea-level rise in an earlier blog post.

This time around, we focused on water (click for event details). Appropriately, it was raining….


Sending your levees to the heavens won’t protect you

Kristina Hill kicked us off. She is an associate professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley, focussing primarily on urban adaptation to climate change in coastal areas. Plenty of her work has also involved studying links of such issues to social justice.

Kristina wasted no time going straight to the hard-hitting truth. That is the Bay Area shouldn’t be just concerned about sea-level rise spilling over from the ocean, but also pushing the groundwater up from below. The water will literally come up from under the ground.

Kristina showed us this map, displaying areas of the Bay which will be flooded by groundwater with a sea-level rise between 0-3 feet (red), 3-6 feet (orange) and 6-9 feet (yellow).

As sea-level rises, it ‘pushes’ the level of groundwater by the coast up with it.

A graphic showing how sea level rise lifts freshwater, causing groundwater inundation in low-lying areas. Credit: UHM Coastal Geology Group

This is already a problem in Honolulu and Waikiki in Hawaii, where rising seas are causing groundwater levels to rise with it and bubble up onto the streets.

Simply, if sea level rises a foot, then the groundwater which sits on top of it also rises a foot. But here is the key thing: levees will make no do difference as the water comes from below. So millions of dollars on such expensive engineering projects to adapt to sea-level rise may keep the ocean waves and tides out, but it won’t stop the water coming in from below.

Now think about all the infrastructure that is built below the surface in urban areas: sewer pipes (what if they are cracked?), foundations of infrastructure (e.g. roads) and basements of buildings (of all kinds, including coastal industries and residential). Kristina asked the audience to consider the issues these would have from the hydro-static pressure and warping caused by water invasion from below.

Kristina got a lot of reaction from showing this image of liquefaction as a result of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand. The higher the water-table (top of the groundwater), the more zones in the Bay Area will be at risk of liquefaction during seismic activity. After all, just like New Zealand, we are in earthquake country! Image source: Te Ara.

The problem is already evident the Bay Area. The footage below, taken by Kristina show the tide gates at 7th Street at Lake Merritt. During a king tide the ocean comes in one way (the Pacific Ocean is the body of water creeping in through the crack in the wall), and the groundwater comes from below (bubbling up from the centre).

So rising sea-levels provide the classic threat of coastal flooding (check); also provides this usual threat of pushing up groundwater from below (double check); and… the third threat for the Bay Area: ground subsidence (tripl… ah damn!).

Surely a solution to rising groundwater would be to pump it out, right? Well, no, actually. You’ll make things worse. Much of the Bay Area is built on top of old wetlands. Pumping the water out of these wet-lands plus all the weight of urban development on top of it causes the ground to subside. San Francisco Airport (SFO) is one of the areas with this problem. This realisation is such big news, that it has even caught the attention of the media worldwide.

So what can we do about it? Kristina gave examples which seems radical on the surface, but really, they make a lot of sense. And the Dutch are already on the case:

The Netherlands have had the right idea for 100’s of years. Spaced canals with draws water out of the raised blocks of development. To work in the Bay Area, this may mean that some roads may need to become canals in order to protect the properties along them. Source: Dutch Amsterdam.

In Rotterdam, they are making the wealthy voluntarily pay for adaptation projects. How?
offer them luxury water-side apartments which are designed to be future-proof. The lakes and waterways act as buffer zone and ‘release-valves’ from rising water, in turn protecting more vulnerable areas (industry, low-income communities) from inundation. This is an excellent read about the plans in Rotterdam. As Kristina puts it: “making entitlement working for everyone!”

And then of course there are the floating houses. These are all potential solutions in the Bay, especially since the area doesn’t have hurricanes or 30ft storm surges to content with… yet.

All this seems expensive. But what’s going to happen if the Bay doesn’t adapt? The cost and damage will be far more expensive than paying for the adaptation. “This is something that future generations will be thankful for.” states Kristina.

“Conversation doesn’t have to be adversarial.”

Nahal Ghoghaie works as Program Coordinator the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. They see clean water as a basic human right and champion the rights of people from poor communities and communities of colour in the Bay Area.

Nahal highlighting partners involved with the EJCW, which includes organisations involved in conversation and restoration of the Bay, and social justice.

What was really striking was not only did Nahal speak about social justice issues associated with water, but also the larger problem of inequality. For example, many poor communities are already undergoing displacement through gentrification projects. There is a very real risk that plans to adapt and more resilient to the impacts of climate change will cause even more displacement of poor communities – they will be the first to see the impacts of sea-level rise and groundwater flooding, and more money will be spent on areas deemed to be of higher ‘economic value’.

So Nahal and the EJCW are working to empower these communities by raising awareness and give them a voice. She gave an example from Hawaii: the ‘Water Writes’ project, lead by the Estria Foundation,

In the Bay Area, the EJCW have supported community leaders in giving them a strong voice. These community leaders have been working with Resilient By Design (RBD) to ensure that the communities are not just heard, but involved in preparing for the impacts of climate change. Nahal emphases the importance of “letting go of the fear” of not fully appeasing the community, as this fear is causing stakeholders to not even begin the process of engaging with the community. It may not be easy to gain trust and relationships with community members, but it is their right to not be excluded.

It is California legislation that disadvantaged communities must be engaged, and not only that, that they receive the funding to assure access to a safe water supply. Since rising sea-levels and rising groundwater can cause contamination of water supplies through salt-water intrusion and the mixing of sewage leakage in groundwater, this is an exceptionally useful and timely piece of legislation.

Also present at the even were some of the community leaders that Nahal was referring, Terrie (representing Marin), Ladonna (Vallejo), Michelle (Bay View Hunter’s Point, San Francisco). They were invited to give their views, which were very insightful and articulate.

Terri Harris-Green, Co-Director of ‘Shore Up Marin’ was one of the community leaders who gave her thoughts about community involvement. ‘Shore Up Marin’ is ‘a multi-racial environmental coalition focusing on emergency preparedness, sea-level rise, flooding and hazard management, climate adaptation, water, air and soil quality, and social equality.

These are the voices which on the grand scheme of things aren’t usually heard; here they were very well received. What is clear is that while the community leaders have very much welcomed this engagement and feel it been a force for good, experiences are somewhat mixed. Here are some quotes I picked up.

The messages were reassuring but affirming:

“I am not going to come up with a plan that displaces people or make the situation worse… Conversation doesn’t have to be adversarial.”

“You’ve [members of the audience, which was dominantly white] been privileged to get educated, we’ve been blessed to be hardened advocates of environmental justice, so lets work together.”

“Helping community to understand [the science and terminology] so it doesn’t go over our heads is important.”

Some were of measured frustration:

“[There are] plans to raise Highway 101 to prevent it from flooding, but nothing about protecting the communities that live by the 101.”

“We are pissed off as hell with RBD, some folks aren’t listening. There are some who are having thoughts of walking away, but they are still willing to make it work.”

“Low income communities are being ignored [on issues such as] toxic contamination, water, displacement…”

And at least one very strong message, testifying to the resolve of these community leaders:

“I am going to be that one who holds you [people in power] to account – when it’s my family who could be floating under the bridge. We are NOT going away.”

Each of the community leaders got a round of applause for speaking out. Communities need to not just be appeased, however, they need responsibility and ownership. It is very clear to me that they are more than willing to be trusted with this, and exceptionally keen to be engaged. After-all, it is is their livelihoods and neighbourhoods on the line. It’s a lot easier for the privilege and wealthy to have a voice in their community. Poorer communities need, in my opinion, even more power, as they have fewer resources to be able to adapt to changing conditions.

Overall, the messages coming from them were positive. There was a lot of praise for people like Naha, Kristina and RBD in general. It just goes to show that true sustainability doesn’t just focus on the environment. It must also always focus on the social and economic. Measures to protect the environment or economic assets will break down without the cooperation, engagement and consent of communities. Think of sustainability like a three-legged stool. Forget to secure just one of those legs, and the stool will fall over.

Your thoughts are welcome… but it takes more than just conviction!

The floor was welcomed to give comments and ask questions. In response to criticism see in the quotes above, there was a young gentleman from the RBD who softly emoted that he and his colleagues at the RBD are trying hard. From what the community leaders said, I don’t think they believe that good intentions were never in doubt, but intentions and outcomes are not always equatable.

One member of the audience took the opportunity to stand up and strongly advocate the rehydrating watersheds around the world to combat their drying due to climate change and human development. Fair enough… However, he stated that 80% of sea-level rise was due to the greater excess of precipitated water flowing as run-off into the ocean due to urbanisation and deforestation rather than being absorbed into the soil. He claimed that sea-level rise can be reversed through ‘global rehydration’. I was equally intrigued and dumb-struck by this claim. Surely if this was true than it would have been big news and lots of discussion in both the media and scientific circles. It is at odds with the current scientific evidence on the causes of sea-level rise, which is actually mostly due to thermal expansion and the melting of land-based ice. It is also at odds with this finding about a slowing of sea-level rise. Is he confusing river and surface water flooding with sea-level rise and coastal flooding? Because sure, urbanisation and deforestation does indeed cause flooding… on the land, not from the sea. I asked him for where he obtained his evidence from. He gave me a card with two websites on (one crossed out) and directed me to where I could find the science behind it. But, unless you readers can find what he was on, about neither website (rainforclimate.com and vow4climate.org) mentioned anything alike what he was claiming. So putting this gentleman’s convictions aside, his unfounded or misunderstood claims could potentially do these organisations harm.

A map and a piece of art, adhered by water

Last but not least, I must doff-my-cap to Joel Pomerant, founder of Thinkwalks. I had a lovely chat with him in general, not just about the event. He came to share his ‘Seep City’ map.

The personable Joel, taking pride in his ‘Seep City’ map. This map shows water on the San Francisco peninsula and the landscape when all urban development is striped away. Joel challenges people to inspect the map and enjoy getting to know the landscape and water courses again. Go check out the Seep City map website!

So this was my last Environment Group/Bay Observatory event before leaving the Exploratorium. I have had my eyes opened and reopened many times by both the exhibits in the Observatory and the events that take place there. I’m very much going to miss all that.

NB: I did my best to balance taking contemporaneous notes, take pictures and attend to guests. So if you spot anything which is a tad inaccurate, or I misheard a quote, or  attributed a quote etc to the wrong person, do give me a shout! Of course you are also welcome to offer your insights in the comments section.

Enjoyed this entry? Please sign up to email alerts by clicking on the ‘Follow’ bottom in the bottom right, giving you a shout when I post again in the near future! 🙂


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