Coastal Commission Concerned About Sea Level Rise And Convention Center Expansion
Monday, January 28, 2013
Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Daniel Cayan studies climate change. He didn't make the flood maps showing the convention center expansion inundated with water in 2050. But part of his research was used to draw the maps, research he says isn't created in a vacuum.
"In our case, we try to provide fairly unbiased information that decision-makers can use. A lot of them don't want to look ahead," Cayan said. "I think there's an obligation for scientists to raise these flags and provide information."
So far, two key agencies - the Port District and the city of San Diego - haven't done much with the information in the maps as they relate to the convention center expansion.
Backers of the San Diego Convention Center expansion will likely find out in March if their plan is a go. That's when the California Coastal Commission decides whether to allow the construction of one million additional square feet to the center at a cost of half a billion dollars. A key question hovering over the project is what role climate change will play in getting a larger convention center built.
Predicting Climate Changes
Publicly, port commissioners say the agency must plan for sea level rise which is projected to increase anywhere between 18 inches to 4 feet along the San Diego tide line by 2050. Former Port Commissioner Scott Peters expressed concern about those projections just days before he was elected to Congress in November.
"Look if we're going to make an investment like this on our waterfront, we need to be ready for sea level rise," he said. "It would not be smart to not consider this as we go forward."
But Peters and his former colleagues on the port argued in environmental documents that the law doesn't require them to factor in future environmental conditions for the convention center project. And he and the rest of the commission voted unanimously in September to move ahead with the project using the old data.
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner refused to grant an interview on the sea level rise maps. But during this month's state of the city address, he said San Diego must respond to climate change.
"You know rising sea levels demand that we plan now to protect our vital coastal infrastructure and neighborhoods," Filner said. "I don't think we're going to save our beaches by continuing to put our heads in the sand."
Yet, Filner said in the same speech that he's optimistic that construction on the convention center expansion will begin soon.
There is no guarantee that will happen. Before the California Coastal Commission votes on the project in March, sea level rise is likely to come up. Commission planner Diana Lilly says she's aware of the maps and doesn't think they should be dismissed.
"We certainly are concerned about the issue of sea level rise and how it affects the convention center expansion," she said.
The market may also care. The $520 million project would be financed by bond investors. And they like to know when there are risks.
"In a securities offering you must disclose all material facts that could conceivably affect an investor in a transaction," said Gary Aguirre, a securities attorney in San Diego."Let me ask you would it affect an investor? Would it be valuable information to know the project for which the funds are being raised could be underwater before the bond was paid off? To ask the question is to answer it. Yes, that should be disclosed."
Aguirre said the city can be clever about what it tells investors.
"You're going to have to say there is this risk. You may marginalize this in some way. But it has to be accurately presented and then you have to say and we have a reserve to cover that."
Mitigation measures for sea level rise include sea walls. Richard Gersberg is a professor of public health at San Diego State University. His research was also used to create the maps. He said building a sea wall to protect an expanded convention center would require additional barriers elsewhere along the San Diego bay.
"Since the water has to go somewhere, in some ways you make the flooding worse," Gersberg said. "If you armor downtown San Diego but don't armor Coronado and don't armor the Midway Sports Arena and the airport, then the flooding might get worse in those areas or in Chula Vista. So once you get into that you have to make choices about what areas you're going to armor or not."
What's more, sea walls run in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Chris Cate, a spokesman for The San Diego County Taxpayers Association declined to comment for the piece.
Scripps researcher Daniel Cayan said there is little doubt the sea will rise in the near future.
"The earth is warming," Cayan said. "Ocean water is expanding thermally. And the ground bay ice stocks on earth, Greenland and Antarctica, are melting. And that's adding to the volume of water in the oceans."
Waterfront communities all over the world are grappling with sea-level-rise planning. And courts are starting to enforce climate change rules. In December, a superior court judge ruled that the San Diego Association of Governments ran afoul of state law by not adequately factoring in climate pollution in its transportation plan. The ruling followed a lawsuit filed in part by the Sierra Club.
Misada Disenhous, activist for the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club, said the group may get involved in the convention center expansion project if governmental agencies ultimately fail to take sea level rise into account.
"I take sea level rise very seriously," she said. "Rather than seeking to be doing development on the coast, we should be looking at what sea level is going to mean for the buildings that exist there now and also the recreational facilities and taking a longer-term view."