Monday, October 29, 2007

This blog is adapting, too

Check out the new tagline: Adapting Locally, Networking Globally.

And the new description: Collecting reports of local climate change impacts and responses from around the world, I'm accumulating a database that can be used for strategic planning by other localities as lessons learned, best practices and valuable contacts.

We're on the verge of new social movement. Where it's going is hard to tell at this point, but the pressures to change and adapt are growing. This year will be regarded from the future as a tipping point where the combined effects of extreme weather, economics and dysfunctional government spurred many people to adopt new viewpoints on the way ahead.

Business as usual just ain't gonna cut it from now on. Especially if you've got kids and grandkids, this is a time to begin thinking and acting adaptively. The path ahead may not be clear, but the articles I'm gathering here show that it's smart to stay light on your feet.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Busy professions for extreme drought

If you live in the drought-affected areas of northern Georgia and Alabama, your employment fortunes might be in the dumpster or they may be soaring. Clearly, you'd better be a creative landscaper or nursery owner to be getting any business these days, but as this AP story tells us, well-drillers and water recyclers are unable to keep up with the booming demand, even when an average new well will cost $6500 to drill with no guarantee that water will be found.

"The drought's got people thinking about water more," said Charles Cone of Southern Energy Solutions in Marietta. "I think there's going to be a gradual shift toward this sort of thing."

This summer, Cone's company sold its first residential gray water recycling tank in Atlanta. The system recycles bath, shower and laundry water and reuses it for toilet flushing.

"I think it's going to change people's mind-set," he said. "You don't need potable water to flush your toilet. It's just something we've always done."

And not all landscapers are crying in their begonias. Those who sell and install miserly watering systems are being called on to save private and public greenery with drip irrigation systems and water salvaging reservoirs.

The RainHarvest Company, a suburban Atlanta business that outfits homes with systems that capture and reuse rain, said business has quadrupled since the drought began.

"People have suddenly decided that water is a lot more valuable than it was a few weeks ago. It's pretty typical — the less we have of something, the more valuable it is," said Paul Morgan, the company's co-founder. "We can't do all that business, so we've had to pick and choose."

He installs large underground tanks that capture and store falling rain water. The water can be pumped back into the home and reused in the shower, dishwasher and irrigation system, or it can be purified and used as drinking water.

"We don't want people to change their lifestyle," said Morgan. "But we'll show you how to continually reuse the water so you're not wasting it."

S. F. Bay Area Residents Indicate Willingness to Adapt

Early indications from a poll show that many residents would be willing to live in smaller homes and pay taxes on gasoline if it would lower the emissions levels that cause global warming.

The random telephone poll of 1800 residents of the greater Bay Area elicited the following responses:

64 percent thought global warming was the most important factor to consider when developing transportation and land-use plans. Another 28 percent considered it at least somewhat important.

Asked whether they would choose to live in a small house with a small backyard instead of a larger house that required a longer commute, 74 percent said yes.

On the controversial issue of gas taxes, a 25-cent-per-gallon boost was OK with 45 percent of those responding, but was opposed by 30 percent. At 50 cents, 28 percent approved the tax increase, and 49 percent were opposed. Only 17 percent said yes to a dollar-a-gallon tax increase.

The Association of Bay Area Governments - faced with meeting state-mandated emissions cuts - was relieved to hear of such receptivity on behalf of residents, but the task they face is huge.
The Bay Area might need smaller houses, higher gas taxes and tolls on busy roads and congested business districts if it is to meet the state's goals for the reduction of greenhouse gases, transportation and land use officials said Friday.

"The challenge for us is, are we going to be able to walk the talk?" said Henry Gardner, executive director of the association. "We've been talking for a long time about focused growth, smart growth, but there has not been a lot of smart walk."

For the Bay Area to meet the state goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1999 levels, people will need to drive less and growth patterns will need to change to emphasize infill development over suburban sprawl, said Gardner and Steve Heminger, his counterpart at the commission. That is likely to mean smaller homes and more trips on mass transit, bike or foot.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wildfire close to home

Looking out my home office window, Mt. Tamalpais can be seen through the haze of smoke that has drifted north from San Diego. Appropriately, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story today about how the homes on the slopes of Mt. Tam are one of the most at-risk homes in the Bay Area.

We've had a few days of heavy rain and it's tempting to think that the fire season is over for us. We haven't had anywhere near the heat and extended drought of San Diego. Yet a fire department engineer stationed on the slopes of the mountain told the reporter, "We regularly take the fuel moisture reading here, and the fuel load right now is at 64 percent. Sixty-six percent is what we consider critical, so I'd say we have to be pretty careful right now."

Not your father's wildfire

Yeah, Southern California is a natural desert area and yes, it gets especially dry every year in early fall. And yes, the Santa Ana winds blow every year creating a heightened risk of fast-moving fire. But this year the conditions were different. It had been hotter and drier through this past summer. The winds blew harder. And housing development further into the brush was just tempting disaster.

My friend, Paul, who lives in San Diego, tells me that San Diego County used to have a 40 acre minimum lot size in the backcountry and there was intense debate on changing the zoning. In what is called GP 2020, the general plan is to make room for a million more residents by 2020. Here's a Sierra Club call for action sent to its members in 2003. It calls for lower density development, lower population and (as a result) less commute traffic in what was were the rural boundaries of eastern San Diego. It could be argued that development alone did not cause the current firestorm, but obviously the exposure of more housing to the potential of wildfires stretches the ability of fire departments to respond and protect. In other words, you move into one of those developments and YOU'RE ASKING FOR IT. Impacts on insurance, taxes, lives and our collective emotions are unavoidable.

The Chief of the U.S. Forestry Service, Gail Kimbell, says, "Fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and to property. Each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer." And as the same S.F. Chronicle article points out:

The 16 wind-blown fires that forced the largest mass evacuation in California history may or may not be the result of climate change, but studies have shown that the hot drought conditions that fed the flames are becoming more common.

The flames stretching from Malibu to the Mexican border struck during the driest year in Southern California history. Measurements taken by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection detected less than 10 percent moisture in the region's vegetation. The moisture level in kiln-dried lumber is generally 12 percent.

"They got less rain than they've ever gotten," said Hugh Safford, a Forest Service ecologist. "Any time you have a dry year like this one, you are going to get fires."

It is so dry that state forestry officials said a newly shod horse started a fire earlier in the year from the sparks it created running on the pavement.

Chronically drier than normal conditions promotes the growth of invasive plant and insect species that may add to flammable material. We all know about the bark beatles that are killing off conifers and leaving forests of firewood. And sources of ignition - specifically lightning - are predicted to increase with the increase of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Other experts quoted in the Chronicle article pointed out that the Santa Ana winds had sustained longer than usual in fanning the San Diego flames. And though none could say for sure that the fire was a result of climate change, it was undeniable that the smoke from the fires is contributing to global warming.

One link that can be made, according to Tom Bonnicksen, a California forest and wildfire expert, is how the fires are contributing to global warming. Almost 20 million tons of greenhouse gases - the equivalent of what is emitted in one year by 3.6 million cars - have been spewed into the atmosphere, he said.

"The problem isn't global warming causing fires," he said. "The real problem is these fires contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming."

All of which could be a foreshadowing of worse problems in the future. Kimbell said the fire threat in California and other states is more severe because cities are now pushing up against the wilderness.

Monday, October 22, 2007

How Not to Deal with a Drought in Progress

Athens, Georgia, may have had its act together - at least from what the local utility manager said. But the rest of the state, and its neighboring southern states, too, seemed to have ignored the fact that they were rapidly running out of water. This New York Time story (thank goodness one major paper is closely following these extreme weather stories) tells a story of neglect, irresponsibility, delusion and probably gross over-optimism.

Maybe the past has included plenty of dry spells. A couple weeks during the normal rainy season. A couple months through a hot summer. Even a whole season of hot dry weather, lowering the reservoir levels. But this situation has been going on intensely since the last rains of the winter. Even I've been following the story long enough that it's been plain to me that there was a crisis. But look at what's been going on down there while I've been worrying about them from way out here in California:

The response to the worst drought on record in the Southeast has unfolded in ultra-slow motion. All summer, more than a year after the drought began, fountains blithely sprayed, football fields were watered, prisoners got two showers a day and Coca-Cola’s bottling plants chugged along at full strength. In early October, on an 81-degree day, an outdoor theme park began to manufacture what was intended to be a 1.2-million gallon mountain of snow.

In late September, with Lake Lanier forecast to dip into the dregs of “dead storage” in less than four months, the state imposed a ban on outdoor water use. Gov. Sonny Perdue declared October “Take a Shorter Shower Month.”

On Saturday, he declared a state of emergency for more than half the state and asked for federal assistance, though the state has not yet restricted indoor water use or cut back on major commercial and industrial users, a step that could cause a significant loss of jobs.

Jeez Louise! Can we please elect some intelligent problem solving managers to public office? Soon? Here's more evidence of criminal incompetence:

The sense of urgency has been slow to take hold. Last year, a bill to require low-flow water devices be installed in older houses prior to resale died in the Legislature. Most golf courses are classified as “agricultural.” Water permits are still approved on a first-come, first-served basis.

And Georgia is not at the back of the pack; Alabama, where severe drought is more widespread, has not passed legislation calling for a management plan.

A realistic statewide plan, experts say, would tell developers that they cannot build if no water is available, and might have restricted some of the enormous growth in the Atlanta area over the last decade. Already, officials have little notion how to provide for a projected doubling of demand over the next 30 years. The ideas that have been floated, including piping water from Tennessee or desalinating ocean water, will require hundreds of billions of dollars and painful decisions the state has been loathe to undertake.

What can you say but, "Oy!"

Adapting to Drought in the US Southwest

This week's New York Times Magazine has a long article on the drought in the Southwest by Jon Gertner. I've blogged about this situation here and here, but you've got to read all of this article to come to grips with how water shortage may be the climate change impact that takes a greater toll on humanity than a slow rise in the sea level.

Just considering the Colorado River - one of many rivers in the world that is depended on by people living in otherwise arid climates:

Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government. In addition, a lesser Colorado River would almost certainly lead to a considerable amount of economic havoc, as the future water supplies for the West’s industries, agriculture and growing municipalities are threatened. As one prominent Western water official described the possible future to me, if some of the Southwest’s largest reservoirs empty out, the region would experience an apocalypse, “an Armageddon.
Bradley Udall, whose testimony before Congress was described in the article, took the author to visit some of the reservoirs in Colorado that are being impacted by the drought in the Southwest. He was, in essence, trying to illustrate the need for all of the dependents on the dwindling water supply to begin adapting to the current and future reality.
As he put it, he wants to connect the disparate members of the water economy in a way that has never really been done before, so that utility executives, scientists, environmentalists, business leaders, farmers and politicians can begin discussing how to cope with the inevitable shortages of fresh water.
The water manager for Aurora, Colorado described his town's efforts to find water sources where there are none. Drilling wells next to a nearby river, sucking the river water out through the "filter" of its shoreline, using the water and then releasing treated wastewater back into the river, upstream from their wells allows them to re-use the same water repeatedly...for a while. It's still going to be one of the most expensive municipal water systems in the US, but it may be the method used by other cities in the Southwest to replace the shrinking snowmelt water sources. It may even be adopted by towns in the drying Southeast, like Athens.

But if the current drought is, indeed, the leading edge of climate change and not just a periodic climatic variation, then such measures are just stop-gap. One scientist quoted in the article - Richard Seager - put it this way in a Q&A with the author:
“You know, it’s like, O.K., there’s trouble in the future, but how near in the future does it set in?” he told me. “In this case, it appears that it’s happening right now.” When I asked if the drought in his models would be permanent, he pondered the question for a moment, then replied: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”
This is how they're approaching the megadrought in southern Australia, where it's become known as the Big Dry. Another climatologist, Roger Pulwarty - who has long studied adaptation to dry climates - is worried about this present stretch of drought.
Pulwarty is convinced that the economic impacts could be profound. The worst outcome, he suggested, would be mass migrations out of the region, along with bitter interstate court battles over the dwindling water supplies. But well before that, if too much water is siphoned from agriculture, farm towns and ranch towns will wither. Meanwhile, Colorado’s largest industry, tourism, might collapse if river flows became a trickle during summertime.
The article also includes extensive interviewing with the water manager of Las Vegas, who is endowed with enough money to offer to build large desalination plants on the Pacific coastline to supply California with water in exchange for getting some of Cali's share of the Colorado River water. (Desalination requires lots of energy and produces lots of brine.) Las Vegas continues to grow, and to use water lavishly as a desert city. Perhaps its collapse will come as a result of rising fuel (and airplane ticket) costs before it comes from lack of water.

Can humans adapt under these crisis situations? Can much less water still be enough water?
To Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., that focuses on global water issues, whether we can adapt to a drier future depends on whether we can rethink the functions, and value, of fresh water. Can we can do the same things using less of it? How we use our water, Gleick believes, is considerably more complex than it appears.

And the Drought Goes On

It's not like Athens, Georgia's government didn't prepare for a drought. In fact, most responsible local resource districts have contingency plans in place for what they define as a drought - which is an extended period with no rain that most likely won't happen again the next year. In a column responding to public criticism, the manager of the local unified district described what looks like a competent plan, which is still being "methodically implemented." Yet, the actual drought has gone beyond what had been thought of as a "100-year" event.

The column explains that in 1996, a reservoir was planned and subsequently built as a 90-day backup water supply. A Comprehensive Drought Management Plan was developed by the government, in concert with local businesses in 2000 and updated in 2004. In response to that plan, measures were put into action to reduce water usage by 10%, and then by 20% - with public response hitting those goals in both instances.

None of these decisions were easy. As the governing authority, the mayor and commission were called upon to make difficult community-value decisions to provide for critical community needs. They have held to those decisions despite unwarranted criticism from some sectors of the community. They might be called upon to make even more difficult decisions if the drought continues and a 30 percent or greater sustainable reduction in water use is needed.
Now the local government is poised on the verge of implenting what they call "Step F," where "the plan gives first priority for water use to health and public safety; second priority to residential use; and third priority to industrial, commercial and institutional use." In other words, business is going to suffer.

Athens may have been the best prepared community in the drought area, but without rainfall that preparedness may only have bought them a bit more time than their neighbors before the impact lands on livelihoods.

Bioneers boosts hope, fosters inclusion

This past three days I attended the 18th annual Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, CA. For the past 18 years Bioneers has been held there, at the Marin County Civic Center. I live about a 10 minute drive away. I've always considered myself to be at least 50% a counter-culture fellow, but I'd never gone to Bioneers. Without having investigated much, I'd considered it more of a new age festival than a practical, educational opportunity. (So maybe I've been less counter-culture than I've wanted to believe.)

I went this year because, as I changed my focus to climate change, my wife, Nancy, thought it would be a good for me to mix it up with more "environmental types." Little did I know.

No, I did not learn much about how we will adapt materially to changing climate. And no, I didn't make connections with people who might fund my work - at least not to my knowledge. But the 3-day experience was invaluable for the inspiration it brought, and the optimism it bred.

One of the greatest obstacles to adapting to any new environment is the attachment to the old environment. And in American consumer culture, much of that old environment is composed of the conveniences of the modern life that depend on the factors that are causing our climate to change. Look at our dependence on the petroleum-burning engine and the stubbornness with which so many of us cling to the freedom to drive gas guzzlers. Adapting to $10/gallon gasoline is going to be difficult and painful for most Americans.

There are countless other examples. And there are many solutions that can make that adaptation less extreme - more of a transition to other means of transportation, to other sources of food, to less harmful chemicals, to more ecological clothing. Bioneers was more about the hope for such futures than about tearing down the establishment. It was about creativity and care for human life in our approach to the future. It was definitely not a consumer-oriented program. But it included a mix of science, spirituality, compassionate activism, and community building.

I learned that in Climate Frog's presentation of future scenarios, where radical climate change is likely to force social transformation in countless localities, it will be much more effective to foster trust and mutual caring than to foment conflict by jamming change down people's throats. Taking the long view and planning well in advance, communities can come to agreements for mutual benefit and make sure that all residents are included in the decision making. Adaptation must be an inclusive process.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Climate Frog Manifesto

The conscious frog in a heating pot of water knows when to act.

Climate Change impacts are happening.

You cannot afford to wait until state and federal governments get their acts together. They will not save your community.

Each community must assess its local risks.

Each community must motivate and unite its people to plan the best adaptation strategy for its unique location, population and vulnerabilities.

Communities must track the current science as reported by the majority of climatologists

Communities must learn from the experiences of other communities already dealing with impacts of climate change.

You’re going to need to change. Some of you may have to relocate.

Sustainability and greater self suffiency must be essential community goals.

Time's a-wastin'. Start now; it’s going to take a long time to implement your plans.

Don't be unprepared. You have no excuse. You know enough to act.

Staggering sun power stats

John Schaeffer, founder of Real Goods (now owned by Giaim) and the Solar Living Institute (SLI), sold his first photovoltais (PV) module in 1978 and has never stopped. He's the host of the annual Solarfest that I attended last August.

In his latest message to the SLI mail list subscribers he tells about his visit to an annual solar energy conference.

The Solar Power 2007 Conference in Long Beach, California, in late September, was a real eye opener. This young conference has doubled in size every year for the last three years and this year there were nearly 9,000 paid attendees - the largest solar conference ever, unless of course you count SolFest and the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, which are consistently larger. I've been going to solar conferences since the early 1980s, and most were noted for their rag tag conglomeration of mission passionate solar pioneers with stars in their eyes.
More impressive than the number of attendees, though, were the projections of solar power as a growing portion of total energy needs in California and the world at large. Not bad! Factor in the optimism that inflates every press release from industry-specific industry annual conferences, and it still looks like a good share of the sustainable energy needs we're looking for. Let's hope these positive trends continue and let's do what we can to make them come true.
  • PV has been growing 70% - 80% annually in the U.S.

  • Solar hot water is growing 50% - 80% every year

  • California has an RPS (renewable portfolio standard) of 20% by 2010, meaning we need to have 20% of our power coming from solar by then.

  • Most CEOs estimate that by 2010 we the world market for PV will be about 15 GW (gigawatts or 15,000 megawatts). Compare this to our current level of a little over 2 GW.

  • Today, worldwide, we get 1/10 of 1% of our power from solar
  • By 2030 we will get 30% of our power from solar

  • By 2100 we will get 70% of our power from solar.
The silicon shortage? As John had it explained to him,
One of the biggest challenges in the solar industry today is the silicon shortage, which has caused the major PV manufacturers to limit the supply to its dealers for the last couple of years, which has wreaked havoc for many smaller installers. It is expected now that this silicon shortage will be gone in approximately two years and the solar floodgates will again become wide open. Many manufacturers are working on PV modules that use less silicon like thinner wafers, thin film technologies, concentrators, and metallurgic grade silicon.
John's perspective of the solar industry - as one of the groundbreakers - was also interesting.
Driving home from the conference my strong sense was that the PV market right now is where home computers were in the late 1970's and cell phones were in the late 1990's. It's both gratifying to be a pioneer in this industry having sold the first PV module in America back in 1978 and daunting to see the tidal wave of the solar economy washing up on our shores so quickly. In the long run it's just what we need if we're to have a chance to mitigate global warming.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Georgia drought on my mind

The American Southeast has been baking and shriveling through drought conditions not seen for at least a century. With much larger populations and more land devoted to agriculture and timber, the demands on water supplies have grown proportionately.

Now northern Georgia is facing what may someday be regarded as "classic drought adaptation." What Georgians do over the next year may provide a model of how to (or how not to) change habits, choices and perhaps a regional economy to deal with a radically different definition of "normal."

Today's New York Times story, "Drought-Stricken South Facing Tough Choices," describes " an emergency so serious that some cities are just months away from running out of water."

Officials in the central North Carolina town of Siler City estimate that without rain, they are 80 days from draining the Lower Rocky River Reservoir, which supplies water for the town’s 8,200 people.

In the Atlanta metropolitan area, which has more than four million people, worst-case analyses show that the city’s main source of water, Lake Lanier, could be drained dry in 90 to 121 days.

Typical of our culture of denial, many people are now asking how things could have gotten so bad with no warning or efforts to prepare for it. The Georgia state climatologist called drought "the Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters." It doesn't get the respect and attention of hurricanes and floods until it reaches extreme conditions where radical conservation measures are demanded.

Local businesses are suffering, especially those that attract customers to what were once lakeside locations.
The lake keeps sinking further and further away from the Little River Bar and Grill, costing the owner a quarter of his customers. As a result, he was forced to layoff four employees on Monday -- and that may not be the end.

"We're trying to hold on to everybody we can," said Ridley. "But you can only pay payroll for so long and continue to operate. So I guess there will be more layoffs down the road."
The Chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is calling for state legislators to enact a new water plan, including creation of more reservoirs. Those won't solve the current problems, though. There are no wet periods in the winter forecast to offer relief.

Meanwhile, the University of Georgia has created a Drought Website to report on emergency conservation measures, the status of agriculture and condition like the rising number of mosquitos and the accompanying threat of West Nile disease.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A science teacher simplifies your risk management decision

Leave it to a guy who teaches science, probably to high schoolers, to clarify the risk assessment process for taking action on global warming, or as he posits the threat, "climate destabilization." If you've been reading my blog for while, you'll have noticed that I've tried to frame climate adaptation in much the same way, but this guy nails it.

How It All Ends - Watch more free videos

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Obama gets it right

Barak Obama is the first - and so far only - to set the bar for capping carbon emissions where it needs to be. We'll see if any of the other viable candidates (Clinton and Edwards) can match it. Gristmill's David Roberts blogs it here. Joe Romm blogs it here. Obama's campaign description of it is here.

Sea Level Rise in a Countywide Plan

In a previous article I questioned whether my home county of Marin was looking closely enough at the impacts of sea level rise on the local built environment including homes, businesses and transportation routes. After having read through the latest draft of our new Countywide Plan, I feel a bit more at ease. I'm not sure if I had much to do with the incorporation of these statements, having grilled one of the county planners about the department's consideration of this elephant under the carpet, but at least the Plan acknowledges the looming danger. It does not, though, make any definitive declarations of zoning changes or plans for levee development. Such changes, when sea level rise is regarded as a conceptual future risk, would no doubt create a political firestorm with business owners, homeowners and Marin's lucrative real estate industry.

Again, I'll go on record to say that nothing in the Plan acknowledges the potential of amplifying feedbacks to speed up sea level rise beyond one meter by the year 2100. The next iteration of the Plan will surely include a reassessment. So here are a few excerpts from the Countywide Plan that other county governments might be interested in seeing:

The Role of Science
Achieving and maintaining sustainability requires keeping up with science. At times, land use and other public policy decisions operate within an institutional framework that does not reflect current scientific information. This is understandable as cutting edge science is always on the move. For example, the multiple causes and effects of climate change, described below, are now well established and current land use decision-making needs to reflect the link between fossil fuel consumption and sea level rise. Keeping up with science is an underlying principle of this Plan. Towards that end, employing evidencebased strategies combined with up-to-date scientific knowledge will provide sound guidelines for taking care of the land, our communities, and the generations that will follow us.
Are threats from environmental hazards increasing?
Many structures lie in hazardous areas, and land for new development may be even more hazardprone. With most easily buildable land already developed, construction increasingly is being proposed on the remaining marginal lots with difficult access and steep hillsides which are subject to slope instability and are vulnerable to rapid changes in fire behavior. Bluff erosion is threatening coastal homes built when bluff edges seemed safely distant. Vegetation that can fuel fires has increased because
natural fires have been suppressed, and residential development continues to encroach on wildlands. Proliferation of impermeable surfaces, alteration of natural drainage patterns, and the effects of climate change have increased the frequency and severity of flood events, and estimates indicate that sea level could rise as much as 36 inches by 2100. Maps 2-9 through 2-15 are utilized by the County in reviewing land use activities proposed in areas with hazard potential.
EH-3.3 Monitor Environmental Change. Consider cumulative impacts to hydrological conditions, including alterations in drainage patterns and the potential for a rise in sea level, when processing development applications in watersheds with floodin or inundation potential.

With increases in sea level due to global warming, flooding is predicted to increase in the future. Locating development in flood-prone areas can expose structures to damage and create risks for inhabitants in the immediate and surrounding areas.
EH-3.k Anticipate Sea Level Rise. Work with the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and other monitoring agencies to track bay and ocean levels; utilize estimates for mean sea level rise to map potential areas subject to future inundation (including by updating information about watershed channel conditions and levee elevations); and amend the Development Code to incorporate construction standards consistent with the policies of BCDS’s Bay Plan for any areas subject to increased flooding from a rise in sea level.
EH-3.l Limit Seawall Barriers. Limit repair, replacement, or construction of coastal sea walls and erosion barriers consistent with Local Coastal Program requirements, and as demonstrated to be necessary to protect persons and properties from rising sea level.

EH-3.n Plan for Sea Level Rise. Consider sea level rise in future countywide and community plan efforts. Consider revising Marin County Development Code standards for new construction and substantial remodels to limit building or require elevated buildings and infrastructure or other applicable mitigations in areas that may be threatened by future sea level rise as shown on maps released by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission in February 2007.
EH-3.o Seek Levee Assistance. Pursue funding for levee reconstruction in those areas threatened by sea level rise, including but not limited to Santa Venetia.

Transition Towns - localized sustainability

One of the smartest things a community can do to prepare for the impacts of climate change is to strengthen its local systems for:

  • disseminating current information
  • dealing with emergency situations
  • developing sustainable energy, food and water resources
  • being as self sufficient as possible
This may sound radical today, when practically every community is reliant on food, goods, water, fuel and power brought in from long distances, but the onset of climate change puts these dependencies on a razor's edge. Extreme weather, rising seas and skyrocketing oil prices are likely to isolate your city, your town, your community and make all of the above abs0lutely necessary.

There's a budding movement afoot in England called Transition Towns. Its founder, an Irishman named Rob Hopkins, is now leading a process called Transition Town Totnes, which he describes as "the UK's first town exploring how to prepare for a carbon constrained, energy lean world."

Transition towns prepare themselves for the day when fuels for transportation become so expensive that imported goods will be unaffordable and local goods and services will have to take their place. A town that has gone through such a transition will grow most of its own food, produce its own essential goods, even use its own currency in order to retain local prosperity. It
will "power down," which is learning to live with less power, and generating power on a hyperlocal level. This adaptation is what Hopkins calls "resilience" - the ability to withstand the shocks that will come with climate change and unaffordable oil.

Transition towns will invest today in teaching their residents the skills required to grow their own food, compost their organic wastes, produce goods that require minimal energy to recycle, and build infrastructure such as greenhouses that will strengthen their sustainability. In Totnes, citizens are conducting "oil vulnerability audits," where business leaders examine the impact of rising oil prices on their as-usual practices. "How will you be impacted when oil is $80/barrel? $100/barrel? $120/barrel? Land is being allocated for planting "food forests" including nut and fruit trees that serve the double purposes of absorbing carbon and providing food.

The town of Willits, in Mendocino County, California, is embarking on a similar path to that of Totnes, UK. Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) states its mission as:
To foster the creation of a local, sustainable economy in the Willits area by partnering with other organizations to watch for opportunities and vulnerabilities, incubate and coordinate projects and facilitate dialogue, action and education within our community.
Like Transition Towns, it is based on an alliance of community leaders who meet regularly and cover the various aspects required to attain local self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on oil. Here in Marin County, the citizens of West Marin ("over the hill" from the much more developed towns of east Marin) are on a simliar path, with the town of Fairfax providing the best example of a sustainable movement.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Good article on flood control

Inland flooding is a natural process in most areas of the world, but human settlement and construction along with attempts to out-engineer Nature have complicated the situation. This article was written about a location in India, but refers to the recent flooding experiences in England, France and Belgium as examples of the consequences of building along river banks.

Flood control requires an integrated understanding of hydrology and ecology of the Valvonti river basin. Controlling such floods in future needs joint monitoring and management of Valvonti’s inter-state catchments. There are natural and man-made reasons for the recent flash floods. Natural reasons may include higher rainfall intensity, bottlenecks in the silted streams feeding the tributaries and truncation of the normal flow channels. Man-made reasons could be several but the systematic destruction of the steep slopes of the Virdi hills by plantation owners in the catchment area of Valvonti is a major cause. The floods might have lasted for a few hours but the intensity and consequent damages were far greater this time than in the past. In Keri, Sattari such flash floods were experienced for the first time in 60 years, so the people were caught by surprise, especially as they took place in the night. The government thinks that longer, taller and stronger RCC embankments will control the floods. But these are of limited use if the flood water carries a heavy sediment load and acquires a higher momentum downstream. Embankments which fragment the natural flood plain could actually cause more havoc in the downstream areas.

More Questions About Insurance

Three years ago, a year before Katrina, Florida got the wake-up call that began a transformation in the way homes there are insured against catastrophe.

On the Insurance Journal site, Cecil Pearce, vice president of the Southeast region for the American Insurance Association, put it this way:
Hurricane Andrew, with $15 billion in insured losses -- threw Florida's property insurance market into chaos, many carriers discovered they had miscalculated their exposure to large weather-related losses.

Many homeowners faced higher rates and fewer options for coverage. Insurers tried to spread their risk over larger areas with less hurricane exposure. Pearce describes “A severe imbalance between the need for insurance and the industry's capacity to provide it.”

But Andrew did not slow the settling of Hurricane Alley and no laws were passed to limit such exposure. After all, Florida’s coastline is its main attraction for new residents and the travel industry. So now insurance is provided as a shared risk between insurance companies, the state and the homeowner. This is not, however, a comprehensive answer to the risk of storm damage and destruction. Another Andrew – given the continued build-up along the coast – could still bankrupt all of the provisional insurance sources.

For everyone whose home is at risk now or may be in the future due to the impacts of climate change, following the thinking of insurance providers is key for several reasons:

  • They are experts in risk assessment. On the ground, that’s what we all wonder – “What are the odds that I’m going to be affected by the forecasted impacts?”
  • People pay insurers so that they can recover or rebuild lost property due to catastrophe. Policy holders trust that they’re covered in case Nature clobbers their homes with wind, fire, flood or earthquake. Insurers, though, are constantly re-evaluating the risks associated with that coverage.
  • Policy holders may not be covered as well as they think. Those re-evaluations are leading to cancellation of policies in many locations where the risk is seen as too great for continued coverage.
  • We all need to know how to respond to the new reality where our locations disqualify us from insurance coverage or when high deductibles and premiums force us to make the choice of whether or not to pay for policies.

Government at both the state and federal levels understands that any region where insurance coverage for expected catastrophe is denied or is unaffordable to the residents is a ticking time bomb. We have the aftermath of Katrina to look at as an example.

Assuming that you can afford the insurance for your most likely disaster, you’d follow the advice of someone like Liz Pullium Weston in this column on MSN’s MoneyCentral page. Read it and you’ll see that unless you can afford to put plenty of money away in your own insurance reserve, there are no guarantees that your coverage will replace your losses.

This is where FEMA would be expected to step in. I know; hold your laughter. But more effective federal support for disaster insurance is being discussed in Congress, which brings up a moral question.

As the New York Times opened its lead editorial yesterday:

There is impeccable logic to the argument that taxpayers should not be made to pay for the risks incurred by people who choose to live along a hurricane-prone coast or atop a major geological fault.

It then noted that 50 percent of Americans live within 50 miles of a coast, and thus are vulnerable directly or indirectly to the damage of hurricanes and sea level rise. At some point, as climate change advances and shows itself, many of those residents may no longer be able to buy or afford insurance.

Since Hurricane Katrina — which caused a record $50 billion in insured losses — private insurers have jacked up premiums as much as they can and, when barred from raising prices, dropped coverage of riskier homes.

Many of these companies, which have turned denying valid claims into an art form, deserve little sympathy and certainly no government subsidies. Still, taxpayers would end up picking up the tab through federal disaster relief if millions of homeowners lost their insurance or decided to drop it due to high premiums.

If, as the editorial continues, the reality remains that we all stand to pay for uninsured losses one way or another, it seems that insurance companies may be let off the hook and relieved of their own risk. That would seem to also relieve them of the responsibility to deliver objective risk assessment - the single most valuable product of their expertise.