Laura Tam, who has done environmental sustainability research at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association for six years, says climate change adaptation planning is one of her most important responsibilities. She helped shape the Bay Plan, a controversial policy that answered complaints about guidance recommending restrictions on bay-front development issued by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission in 2010. The following year, she published “Climate Change Hits Home,” listing the ways the Bay Area could be more prepared for changes in weather, freshwater supply and sea-level rise.The following is an edited transcript of our interview with her.
A version of this story ran in the winter 2014 print edition .
Laura Tam, who has done environmental sustainability research at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association for six years, says climate change adaptation planning is one of her most important responsibilities. She helped shape the Bay Plan, a controversial policy that answered complaints about guidance recommending restrictions on bay-front development issued by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission in 2010. The following year, she published “Climate Change Hits Home,” listing the ways the Bay Area could be more prepared for changes in weather, freshwater supply and sea-level rise.
The following is an edited transcript of our interview with her.
Public Press: What are some of the sea-level-rise planning projects now in the works?
Laura Tam: A few years ago, a chunk of Ocean Beach fell into the sea. It restarted the dialogue on what has been going somewhat unsuccessfully for many years, around what should be done to prepare the western shore of San Francisco for erosion and sea-level-rise events. There are a huge number of federal, state and local agencies that have jurisdiction there. And there’s a lot of recreational use, a lot of infrastructure and endangered species. So we did a master plan for that. We’re working on two implementation studies right now, one on coastal management, one on transportation and circulation.
Many levels of government are involved in sea-level-rise planning, but how are local governments responding to the most up-to-date models and predictions?
My sense is that local governments aren’t necessarily doing a lot on their own, but they’ve demonstrated a lot of willingness to be engaged and to recognize the issue. And that’s a lot better than we were five years ago.
State and regional agencies are doing some of the thought leadership here, in terms of understanding sea-level rise in the Bay Area. There’s a whole spate of studies that the state has funded on Bay Area vulnerability. I think they published 10 of them in 2012.
Whose responsibility is it to plan for sea-level rise in the Bay Area?
It’s nobody’s job to plan for sea-level rise, really. Agencies for which sea-level rise is a big concern generally pay attention to the issue of climate change. And the Joint Policy Committee is a group of concerned people who would like to help prepare guidance and recommendations for what local planners can do. They have done a bunch of county-by-county policy dialogues to bring together local stakeholders, to raise awareness and to understand the state of planning at the county or sub-regional level.
I think those things are really important because you can’t just come down and issue some kind of regional policy if you haven’t prepared local government and actually used their input to create such a plan. Then you get what the Bay Conservation and Development Commission experienced in 2009 and 2010, which is all this furor over the idea of planning for climate change — when really the idea was to be helpful.
What exactly is the plan for the Bay Area for sea-level rise?
There isn’t one plan for sea-level rise. There are a lot of different groups and, in their areas of responsibility, there’s been a lot of work to recognize the potential future effects of sea-level rise. And the Bay Conservation and Development Commission uses their new sea-level-rise amendment when considering whether to approve or not to approve a project. Before, there was no requirement or guidance for the commission to consider sea-level rise. The amendment gave the commission the power to ask those questions and to be protective of the shoreline area.
How do resources available to cities and counties in the Bay Area affect their ability to plan and prepare for sea-level rise?
Now, we’re not experiencing the recession we were two years ago, at least in San Francisco. At the time, people were less receptive to the idea of planning for climate change, and it was not perceived to be as urgent of an issue. It actually gave people who are planners a little bit of time to be thoughtful about what guidance they would recommend. But I don’t think there are any cities or counties in the area that have adopted some kind of climate change sea-level-rise policy.
What is the most important thing the Bay Area should do to prepare for sea-level rise that is not being done right now?
There are a couple of really exciting pilot projects that look at vulnerabilities and do in-depth assessments, and try to cobble together adaptation strategies. And those are really raising awareness of sea-level-rise planning.
Are there any forward-thinking projects under way, then?
San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR): www.spur.org 
Bay Conservation and Development Commission: www.bcdc.ca.gov 
Plan Bay Area: onebayarea.org 
Climate One at the Commonwealth Club of California hosted a panel discussion on sea level rise in early March. Tam urged regional planners to prepare aggressively for the encroachment of San Francisco Bay on communities across the region.