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Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | monterey county

Santa Cruz Unveils Climate Adaptation Plan

December 2011

Are you ready to relocate the downtown? Will you miss Main Beach?

by Michael Levy

On October 4, the Santa Cruz City Council, some city staff, and a handful of members of the public listened raptly to UCSC scientist Gary Griggs in the Council chambers as he presented the results of his Climate Vulnerability Study. Griggs explained that the changing climate points to future effects such as the gradual disappearance of Main Beach, a dangerously rising water table underneath downtown, increasing flood events in low-lying areas, more severe drought and storm episodes, and more.

Next Cathlin Atchison, City Project Manager and author of the new Climate Adaptation Plan, explained a prioritized list of actions the City might take to prepare for the impacts listed in the City-commissioned Vulnerability Study. Atchison explained that Santa Cruz is one of the few cities in California to include climate adaptation in its FEMA-funded Hazard Mitigation planning process.

The City Climate Adaptation Plan covers an important area of planning completely absent from the earlier and much better-known City Climate Action Plan. Whereas the Climate Action Plan deals with preventing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Climate Adaptation Plan is all about getting ready for the effects of climate change, many of which are connected to sea level rise. Some examples of the 18 steps recommended as "very high priority" in the draft Adaptation Plan are

• Upgrade or relocate downtown City buildings to prepare for sea level rise.
• Protect wastewater facility from groundwater infiltration.
• Seal wastewater pipes throughout the system to protect against rising groundwater.
• Replace the Highway 1/9 bridge with a higher one to reduce flooding risk.

While working avidly on action to reduce emissions (also known as "climate mitigation"), many environmentalists have been hesitant to put any attention on adaptation. Here's an analogy to explain why.

Imagine for a moment that you are a smoker. You've cut back, but you still enjoy a couple of smokes a day. You know you should quit; your doctor says you have precancerous lesions. But quitting is hard, and all your friends smoke. Should you start budgeting and planning now for your future cancer treatments? Your wife (a smoker too) thinks you should. But your kids think that this is a big distraction and that all your attention should be on quitting— and getting your friends to quit too.

Mitigation (The Climate Action Plan) is a bit like quitting smoking, and adaptation (The Climate Adaptation Plan) corresponds to planning for cancer treatments. Like the kids in the analogy, climate activists have asked, "Will a focus on adaptation cause people to become complacent about slowing climate change?" However, there appears to be an increasing acceptance of the need for both. As veteran climate activist Bill McKibben put it, "We have to adapt to that which we can't prevent, and prevent that to which we can't adapt."

A glance at the list of the proposed "to do" items in the Climate Adaptation Plan (available on the Santa Cruz City website,, (click the drop-down menu under "Environment") makes it clear that adaptation will be extremely expensive. For example, the price tag for sealing underground wastewater pipes so they don't leak into the rising groundwater is estimated at $1-2 million a year for 10 years, starting now.

Of greater concern is the fact that over time, adaptation efforts will be trumped by climate change if it proceeds unchecked. For example, according to Griggs, the long-term implication of the increasing rate of sea level rise is that the entire downtown will have to be relocated to higher ground. Can you imagine what that would cost?

With both the Climate Adaptation Plan and Climate Action Plan slated to return to City Council for final approval in January, there is an opportunity to think simultaneously about both sets of priorities, and since resources are limited, to find ways to combine efforts. Climate mitigation and adaptation do not have to be considered separate issues. There are strategies that both mitigate and adapt. For example, water conservation: Reducing water use lessens the need for energy- and emissions-intensive pumping and treatment while also adapting to the increasing drought periods expected with climate change.

To express your opinion on either or both of these important plans, contact the Santa Cruz City Council at .

Michael Levy is coordinator of Transition Santa Cruz.

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