San Francisco holds its breath to find out how much it will cost to protect its waterfront from sea level rise

San Francisco's waterfront. (Getty Images)
San Francisco's waterfront. (Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — On a brisk February morning, a portable orange traffic sign set up near the intersection of Mission Street and Embarcadero shuddered in the wind, blinking a warning to passing drivers: “Caution: King tides.”

Waves from San Francisco Bay now regularly breach the pier and spill into the streets at this spot during tidal surges and helped convince city officials that sea level rise caused by climate change is no longer a problem that can be ignored.

“It was into my second year that I realized that my whole job and the organization was going to do this work,” Port of San Francisco executive director Elaine Forbes, who was appointed to her position in 2016 by then-Mayor Ed Lee, said beneath the Ferry Building’s broken clock tower, its hands fixed to either high noon or midnight as it undergoes repairs. “You’re on the line of defense.”

A semi-independent entity, the port oversees 7.5 miles of the city’s coastal facilities along the bay, leasing out a wide array of properties, including landmarks like Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, the Ferry Building, a cruise ship terminal and Oracle Park, where the Giants play baseball. Its revenues are crucial to the city’s bottom line, and in 2018 Forbes mobilized her office to help ensure the passage of Prop A, a voter initiative that raised $425 million in taxpayer funds to begin addressing repairs and seismic upgrades to a 3-mile section of the city’s crumbling, more-than-100-year-old sea wall in anticipation of sea level rise.

“We said at the time, this is really a down payment for the problem,” Forbes recounted.

Since then, projections for how bad that problem will get have only become more dire. In 2020, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the nonpartisan fiscal and policy adviser to the California Legislature, issued a report stating that under a scenario of continued high greenhouse gas emissions, San Francisco could see as much as 7 feet of sea level rise by 2100.

A graphic from a 2020 report by California's Legislative Analyst's Office.
A graphic from a 2020 report by California's Legislative Analyst's Office.

In response to that grim new estimate, Forbes and the port’s commissioners announced last fall that they were partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a comprehensive yearlong study examining how best to protect the vulnerable waterfront. Doing nothing, everyone seemed to agree, was not an option.

“The increased frequency of flooding that you’ll see as the bay comes up and you have more frequent tidal flooding, the numbers are in the billions in terms of the damages that will accumulate from that,” Brian Harper, a director of planning with the Army Corps, told Yahoo News.

But just as significant increases in sea level will result in monumental damages, adequately protecting communities from the additional rise will also become much more expensive. Complicating San Francisco’s efforts, the pandemic has badly diminished revenues from tourism and financial district foot traffic, forcing port officials to go hat-in-hand to city, state and federal entities in search of money to use to harden the coastline against rising waters.

“We’re not even at a scale to pretend to be able to pay for this project,” Forbes said. “We have a $114 million balance sheet, maybe a little higher. If we’re lucky, we have a $25 million capital budget that we squeeze out of our net revenues.”

While noting that any estimate on how much a fix will cost depends on what the Army Corps recommends in its report, Forbes speculates that the range could end up between $10 billion and $30 billion. Other experts, however, believe that guess could be too low.

Pier 14 in the Embarcadero district of San Francisco. (Getty Images)
Pier 14 in the Embarcadero district of San Francisco. (Getty Images)

“Projects like this have never, ever been built for the initial cost estimate,” said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and the founder of Oakland’s Pacific Institute, which in 1990 conducted California’s first-ever report on how sea level rise would impact the Bay Area. “It’s not just sea level rise. It’s the big storm in addition to sea level rise that’s the issue. Seven feet of sea level rise is devastating, and then on top of that you have the extreme storm and then the king tides on top of 7 feet. That’s when the real damages are felt, and they’re felt long before they reach 7 feet.”

While many Americans still doubt the existence of climate change or whether climate change represents a threat serious enough to spend billions to address, coastal communities across the country have already begun heeding the wake-up call issued by scientists. San Francisco is just one of several U.S. cities to seek help from the Army Corps of Engineers in recent years. Others include Charleston, S.C., Miami and Boston. As the reality of the situation and the costs associated with it continue to sink in, more and more cash-strapped communities will no doubt seek federal assistance.

“Our standard cost sharing for flooding coastal projects is 65% federal, 35% local,” Harper said.

But federal money for projects designed and proposed by the Army Corps is by no means guaranteed.

A king tide washes up along the Embarcadero in San Francisco on Jan. 3, 2022.
A king tide washes up along the Embarcadero in San Francisco on Jan. 3, 2022. (Brontë Wittpenn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

“Each step of the way, we need an authorization from Congress and we need appropriation of funding to move to the next step,” Harper said. “Our steps are: Study it, design it, construct it and then operate it. So in each of those stages we would be going back to the Congress with an updated status of where we are and request for appropriation to move to the next stage.”

With the GOP back in the majority in the House of Representatives, it’s unclear how future requests for climate adaptability from the Corps will be received. Not a single Republican, after all, voted in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act, and many lawmakers who abhor large federal outlays have already begun looking for ways to kill its climate provisions. Yet much of the funding for hardening ports and waterfronts was allocated in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and Harper notes that the Corps continues to get approval for large projects.

“The administration incorporated authorization for all federal infrastructure agencies to specifically address climate resilience across the country, but [also] in urban settings like San Francisco and other large cities,” Harper said. “Some of this is still evolving and developing as federal agencies and their local and state counterparts figure out how to make those partnerships come together. The climate resilience aspect is continually evolving.”

Seeing the future

Kevin Costner in the 1995 movie
Kevin Costner in the 1995 movie "Waterworld." (Ben Glass/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Of all the consequences of climate change, sea level rise has so far remained something of an abstraction for many in the general public. While the oceans have indeed risen by an average of 8 to 9 inches since the 1880s, that difference can seem laughable when compared with Hollywood’s dystopian portrayal of what the future will look like. “Waterworld,” set in the year 2500, envisioned a world in which the polar ice caps and glaciers have completely melted away and sea levels have risen by 24,000 feet.

Since the 1995 debut of that film, the U.S. Geological Survey has released its own estimate of what an ice-free world would mean, concluding that “global sea level would rise approximately 70 meters (approximately 230 feet), flooding every coastal city on the planet.”

Given the swift transition to renewable sources of energy over the past few years, that outcome may also turn out to be too pessimistic. But until we dramatically slow the burning of fossil fuels, the planet will almost certainly continue to warm, causing the seas to keep rising. Though today’s 8 to 9 inches of sea level rise may not seem headline-worthy, almost half of the amount (3.8 inches) has occurred since 1990, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The pace of that rise, scientists predict, is poised to increase dramatically in the coming decades.

To better understand what multiple feet of additional sea level rise will mean for the nation’s coastlines, NOAA created its Sea Level Rise Viewer tool. When one toggles up to 7 feet of rise in San Francisco, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Oracle Park and the $1.4 billion Chase Center, where the Golden State Warriors play basketball, are all shaded light blue, meaning they will be submerged in water. Forbes’s office on Pier 1, the Ferry Building next door and a good chunk of the financial district would also be permanently flooded, with access to multiple underground BART and Muni stations needing to be sealed off.

A screengrab from NOAA's Sea Level Rise Viewer tool showing the San Francisco area with 10 feet of sea level rise.
A screengrab from NOAA's Sea Level Rise Viewer tool showing the San Francisco area with 10 feet of sea level rise.

But how seriously should people take the Legislative Analyst’s Office upper-end prediction?

“It’s based on very sophisticated model assumptions,” Gleick said. “There’s a range of estimates. We don’t know how fast the big ice masses on Greenland and Antarctica are going to destabilize, but 1 to 2 meters by 2100 is not out of the bounds of reality and what we can expect.”

The same year San Francisco voters passed Prop A with 82.7% of the vote in order to “protect $100 billion of assets and economic activity,” a poll from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that 84% of area residents said they believed global temperatures were rising and would continue to do so, the highest number of any community in the U.S.

“It does help when they’re able to see the change. With flooding during a king tide they say, 'Hey, this is different,'” Harper acknowledged. “But that doesn’t really capture the severity of what they’re going to see over a longer time frame.”

Like NOAA, the Army Corps has turned to visual aids to help residents understand what they will be up against, posting its own sea level rise viewer that overlays flooding depictions onto photos of urban areas.

“Here’s your downtown area. Here are buildings you should recognize because they’re in your community, and here’s what that future tidal event is going to look like,” Harper said.

If “Waterworld” was too fantastical, another sci-fi film, “Blade Runner 2049,” offered viewers a glimpse of something less abstract in scenes that featured a massive sea wall that shields Los Angeles from the encroaching ocean. That kind of utility-over-aesthetics approach has, despite the obvious drawbacks, been suggested in San Francisco to replace and dwarf the existing sea wall.

“We don’t just want to build a vertical wall. We could do that and just solve it, but that’s not good for anybody,” said Kevin Conger, president and founding partner of CMG Landscape Architecture, a San Francisco firm the port has hired to begin drawing up ideas for what a fortified sea wall would look like. “In order to adapt and hold the water back we need to elevate portions of the waterfront, but that causes another problem, which is inland flooding, because all the stormwater that’s running down by gravity is no longer going to be able to run out to the coast because you’ve elevated that edge.”

An aerial view of the port of San Francisco shrouded in fog.
An aerial view of the Port of San Francisco shrouded in fog. (Getty Images)

Conger, Forbes and Harper all agree that whatever the final plan that emerges following the release of the Army Corps report, it should prioritize community access to the waterfront while preparing it for what’s ahead. To address the varying needs and limitations of the waterfront, the designs will include a mixture of solutions, including reinforcing and raising the existing sea wall; creating new parks that will help channel floodwaters; adding pumping stations; upgrading stormwater systems; elevating roadways, light rail tracks and even some buildings, and floodproofing the lower floors of many others; and, quite possibly, retreating from some areas altogether.

“Fundamentally, it’s looking at maintaining the line of defense, managing water, adapting with water or allowing water,” Forbes said. “There’s various alternatives that will work best in different locations along the waterfront.”

Despite the immense scale of the project, Conger stresses the long view.

“We get so sort of locked into a fear of change. But we’re always tinkering with our cities and changing things. For us to work on these projects, it’s not like we build them and walk away and we’re done, especially as landscape architects,” he said. “Our designs change constantly.”

In November, the Army Corps will present its draft to the public, inviting comments from a range of stakeholders before incorporating that feedback. Assuming congressional authorization follows suit, Harper said, the budgeting for design could come as soon as 2026.

“Depending on what the project is, design can be two to five years. Construction, again, can be two to five years. It will depend on what the specific project recommendation is coming out of the report, and it’s all subject to congressional action and administration support,” Harper said.

Calculating the final costs could itself be a years-long project. In surveys conducted by the port, for instance, San Francisco residents have prioritized elevating the 1898 Ferry Building to keep it above the rising waters. But lifting a three-story building that contains more than 200,000 square feet of office and commercial space and a 15-story clock tower won’t be cheap. Nor will be addressing possible groundwater contamination at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, now an 866-acre federal Superfund site. Last June, a civil grand jury released a report that stated, “As the sea level rises, shallow groundwater near the shore rises with it, and can cause flooding, damage infrastructure, and mobilize any contaminants in the soil.” While the cleanup of buried radioactive soils is being overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency and state officials, the city is “poorly prepared,” the report said, to address the potential effects of sea level rise.

The Ferry Building in San Francisco.
San Francisco's Ferry Building. (Getty Images)

All the coastal challenges facing San Francisco could become much more difficult depending on the precarious fate of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. In 2021, a study was published that concluded that the Florida-size glacier was at risk of collapse in the following five years. Already, Thwaites accounts for roughly 4% of global sea level rise annually, and its collapse would, in the short term, translate into 2 more feet of rise. Because Thwaites helps hold other glaciers in place, however, its destruction would result in a cascading catastrophe resulting in an additional 10 feet of sea level rise.

Of course, the contiguous 7.5-mile stretch operated by the Port of San Francisco is just one small part of the Bay Area coastline that will be impacted by sea level rise.

“You’re going to have to build sea walls around the Oakland airport, the San Francisco airport, and sea walls around San Jose,” Gleick said. “When we did our study there were 29 wastewater treatment plants that were vulnerable to a meter of sea level rise.”

Though Gleick notes that San Francisco has plenty of options when it comes to combating rising seas, many poorer and less well-situated places aren’t as lucky.

“I guess the whole point is, this is just a little hint of the huge costs that are going to be associated with climate change in general and sea level rise in particular if we don’t slow these [temperature] changes,” he added.