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Silicon Valley Expansion Plans Risk Flooding From Rising Seas, State Planners Say

San Francisco Public Press
 — Apr 22 2016 - 4:39pm

Google, Facebook and others are building headquarters along shoreline as scientists paint grimmer picture for coastal development

For the last few years, construction cranes have been a prominent fixture of the Bay Area shoreline, a sign of booming development fueled by the red-hot technology sector. Both Facebook and Google chose to build new headquarters on the San Francisco Bay shoreline of Silicon Valley.

But the glimmering new campuses are threatened by rising sea levels. According to a new report in the U.K. Guardian, regional agency officials are publicly criticizing the companies for the choice of location — despite having approved the projects in the first place.

Facebook recently finished a new campus with a 430,000-square-foot building, featuring a 9-acre rooftop garden, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. Lindy Lowe, a senior planner for the state of California, questioned that decision.

The Bay Area waterfront construction bonanza has enriched developers and filled the treasuries of local cities with millions of dollars in new property tax revenue. The Guardian report cited an investigation last summer by the Public Press, which found that builders were planning to invest more than $21 billion in new buildings in flood-prone areas, where scientists suggest waters could rise 8 feet above today’s high tide during a storm surge by the year 2100.

Map by Maia Wachtel, Marcea Ennamorato and Brittany Burson // UC Berkeley CAGE Lab; Amanda Hickman // Public Press

The development explosion is driven by the major players in tech. Along with Facebook, Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn all have built new projects along the edge of the bay.

The Guardian reported:

“Facebook is very vulnerable,” said Lindy Lowe, a senior planner at California’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission. “They built on a very low site — I don’t know why they chose to build there. Facebook thinks they can pay enough to protect themselves.

“The temporary flooding within the campus can probably be addressed, but the temporary flooding onto the roadway can’t be addressed by them. I think they realize that is the weakest link for them. We’ll see how dedicated they are to that facility.”

The Commission was established to ensure public access to the water and development that would fill in marshes or create new land. Any project within 100 feet of the shoreline must get an OK from the agency, and Facebook did receive a green light.

The officials’ lack of authority to block the project is evidence of the current limits of state and local regulations regarding new development. One problem is that some of the companies claim that the California Environmental Quality Act does not account for climate change.

In its environmental impact report, Facebook said that although the land was low lying, the buildings themselves would be raised above future flood risk.

But the company also argued that it was not obligated under state rules to judge environmental risk to the surrounding area. As the report put it, the purpose of company’s the environmental studies “is to evaluate the effects of the project on the environment, not the effect of the environment on the project.”

Last year, Google proposed a massive new headquarters in Mountain View, and it circulated slick promotional videos and renderings showing 3.4 million square feet of office space. Environmentalist ripped the project for not planning for the unavoidable impacts of climate change.

Climate researchers predict that the rise in ocean levels will accelerate later this century as the atmosphere heats the ocean and melts glaciers. State and local planners, consultants and developers have settled on a median consensus projection of 3 feet of sea rise by 2100.

The figure is derived from a 2012 study of the effects of climate change on the West Coast published by the National Research Council. Bay Area cities must also contend with surging water during a “100 year storm” — severe but predictable weather events that can add as much as 3.4 feet of rise.

In its cover story last year, the Public Press chose to map the 8-foot contour of San Francisco Bay because it is the upper limit of the range predicted by scientists and shows what planners should pay attention to if they take adopt a precautionary approach. See the full version of the map.

A new scientific report raises the strong possibility that continued high emissions of heat-trapping gases could launch a disintegration of Antarctic ice sheets within decades, not centuries as previously believed. Some researchers are now predicting the rising waters could reach 5 or 6 feet by the end of the century.

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