BLUE NOTES #105: The Election, Hurricane Response and a Seaweed Group Rebuilds
November 20, 2012
By David Helvarg
Was this election good for the fish?
The short answer is that’s up to us. While the ocean and climate change failed to play any real role in the presidential campaign, President Obama has acknowledged the importance of science-based policy as part of a strategy for rebuilding the U.S. economy and protecting our coasts and ocean. Unfortunately, during the campaign Governor Romney appeared to pander to climate science deniers in his party while his only statement on the ocean was a call for expanded offshore oil and gas drilling. His campaign also failed to respond to an action letter to the candidates from 60 prominent ocean leaders (see Blue Notes #104).
In response to that letter President Obama emphasized his commitment to the National Ocean Policy he initiated in 2010. Hopefully, as it is being implemented the NOP will remain an ecosystems-based approach rather than simply a better way to coordinate federal, state and tribal oversight of commercial operations on our public seas.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and other indicators of climate disruption, some additional uses of our public seas need to include building climate adaptation structures and estuarine, wetland and other natural restoration projects along our shores.
Other election results saw good news for the ocean including 43 of the 46 House and Senate candidates endorsed by Ocean Champions (see Blue Notes #101) winning their races. Unfortunately that won’t be enough to change the balance of powers in the House and Senate. As a result expect ocean conservation initiatives to continue to be treated as fodder for internecine partisan warfare as we’ve seen with the U.S. Senate’s ongoing failure to ratify the Law of the Seas Treaty.
At the same time there is an unfortunate bipartisan agreement on cutting funding to frontline ocean and coastal agencies such as NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These already bare bones services are facing major short-term cuts even without the threat of sequestration (the fiscal cliff) because they’re seen as soft targets without strong constituencies to fight for them.
And that’s our challenge. Hard times call for willing champions to fight for those who have little or no voice of their own be they marine wildlife like sharks and whales, working class waterfront communities like New York’s storm battered Staten Island, or federal agency scientists not being listened to. Hopefully hundreds of us will be there to confront our elected leaders next May 15 when, as part of Blue Vision Summit 4, we march onto Capitol Hill and into their offices to advocate for healthy coasts, realistic ocean budgets and the jobs, economies and communities that depend on them.
After Sandy – Lessons from California
Hurricane Sandy that slammed the eastern seaboard October 29 was just the latest wake up call for climate action along our coasts. Governors Cuomo of New York, Christie of New Jersey and others, in considering future risk from climate-change intensified disasters such as Sandy, would be wise to stop waiting on a gridlocked Washington, D.C. for new policy direction and instead look at how California is already moving forward on common-sense adaptations as reported in my upcoming book, The Golden Shore.
Rising tides under the Golden Gate Bridge are now projected to directly impact over a quarter million people and threaten more than $60 billion in infrastructure in the San Francisco Bay/Delta region later in this century. Still, for the next few decades extreme storminess, waves and king tides, not sea level rise will have the most impact on the shore according to the U.S. Geological Service.
More importantly California is addressing the cause of the problem with its Climate Action Plan. With over half of U.S. venture capitol investment in clean technology now taking place in California and with energy conservation programs that have seen the state’s per capita energy consumption hold steady over 30 years as the rest of the nation’s increased 40 percent, it’s easy to argue California is helping move the world off its dependence on coal and petroleum. These of course are the cutting edge energy systems of the 16th and 19th centuries. Yet given the existing build up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and their impact on the ocean, climate adaptation is also essential.
That’s why a number of local California governments and agencies have begun taking action. Earlier this year the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), the first coastal planning agency in the world, amended the San Francisco Bay Plan to make sure projected sea level rise is incorporated into any new project such as a planned $1.5 billion dollar high-rise development and home community on Treasure Island in the middle of the Bay. After flooding in 2010 shut down the Great Highway in the Ocean Beach section of the city, San Francisco tried armoring the eroding shore with piles of boulders. The Army Corps of Engineers proposed pumping sand dredged from shipping channels onto the beach while a city think tank on urban planning put forward a plan for shrinking the Great Highway from four to two lanes and re-routing part of it inland seeing “planned retreat” as the best method to deal with sea level rise. In the south bay a major wetlands restoration project now underway is expected to reduce the impacts of sea-level rise and flooding both on small low income towns like Alviso as well as low-lying high-dollar value corporate campuses such as Yahoo in Sunnyvale and Google in Mountain View.
In Newport Beach in southern California city planners are looking into raising seawalls in waterfront neighborhoods like Balboa Island that are already prone to flooding and requiring foundations on new beach properties be raised several feet, a modest start to be sure.
Governments in San Diego, Ventura and Humboldt counties are also involved in multi-stakeholder efforts to begin coastal planning for sea level rise. At present about half the towns along California’s coast have begun developing climate adaptation policies. “It’s not uncertainty about the science keeping them from acting,” says Amber Mace, former executive director of the state’s Ocean Protection Council (OPC). “It’s lack of funding, lack of staff and a lack of support from outside.” Tools the OPC can provide them include high-resolution seafloor maps with improved intertidal and shoreline maps to follow as well as links to a range of scientists who are working to “downscale” projections of climate impacts from the 200-mile grid scales used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to the local level where zoning, beachfront management and other land use decisions are made.
The OPC, established in 2004, has also gotten other state agencies to incorporate sea-level rise and climate change into their planning profiles, as has Governor Brown and republican Governor Schwarzenegger before him. The state Coastal Commission that requires all waterfront communities have Local Coastal Plans will soon require they revise them to incorporate projected sea level rise and extreme flooding. It’s also likely state grants to coastal communities will soon require applicants have a climate change adaptation policy in place in order to receive funding.
It’s worth remembering that following the 1906 earthquake California created and set new standards for fire and earthquake safety that eventually became national standards. There’s no reason we can’t do the same preventative planning for climate change. But the early planning for coastal adaptation now taking place in California needs to reach from sea to shining sea.
A regular feature of Blue Notes where we shine the light on a group from the Blue Movement Directory in order to create a more self-aware and collaborative movement. This month we feature Clean Ocean Action.
Founded in 1984 by ocean activists including executive director (and BFC board member) Cindy Zipf, Clean Ocean Action is a broad based anti-pollution coalition that has been a vastly effective player in cleaning up and protecting New York and New Jersey’s ocean shoreline, recently devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
Among its major accomplishments, it played a critical role in stopping New York City from dumping sewage sludge and toxic dredge spoils off the Jersey Shore in the 1980s. Since the early 1990s it has held a series of annual Beach Sweeps every spring and fall with tens of thousands of citizen volunteers cleaning up the shore. Among its other works, it advocates for the creation of a Clean Ocean Zone to protect the New York Bight and has had over 10,000 youths participate in its outdoor student learning summits for 5th to 8th graders.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s huge impacts, COA is looking to help restore and rebuild the coast in a way that will better prepare it for the next disaster. Its headquarters, located in an old army barracks turned park on Sandy Hook at the north end of the shore, survived the storm despite being surrounded by floodwaters. Still it remains closed—without power or access—and two weeks after the storm COA moved to a temporary HQ site donated by Jersey Printing, a local business supporter in Atlantic Highlands. Like the Gulf Restoration Network that had to evacuate its New Orleans headquarters during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and came back to play a key role in responding to the BP oil spill disaster of 2010, we expect COA will come back strong. I spoke with Executive Director Cindy Zipf on Monday, November 12.
“We’re all fine and had some loss of power but many friends and businesses suffered total losses, and many people had to evacuate from their homes,” she reports. “Our business manager and her family are just being allowed to return to assess damages to their beach home tomorrow (15 days after the storm). They’ve had that house on the shore for 55 years. But it wasn’t just the shoreline that was impacted. The damage went a mile in on the New York coast and water lifted and flooded cars all across Coney Island and the Rockaways and has also left high-rise apartments without power or services for weeks. In New Jersey there’s been an impressive relief effort from the grassroots to the state and federal agencies. There are electric companies and police officers from as far away as Texas, Missouri and Ohio. It’s brought out the good, the bad and ugly of human nature. Lots of young people have really stepped up to volunteer. And of course the damage is still being assessed. Fortunately loss of life was not what it was in Katrina, people evacuated here. But in the Clean Ocean Zone region some areas were hit really hard and others not as much. So as the rebuild moves forward it will be important to see what withstood the damage and what didn’t. We’re going to be working towards a [COA] day of action, a ‘Wave of Action,’ December 8 to address the impacts from Montauk (at the Eastern tip of Long Island) to Cape May (at the bottom of the Jersey Shore) to see what each community needs in terms of help from our volunteers. Long-term I see our role as working with communities and organizations to make sure natural habitat is restored and any redevelopment reduces sources of pollution and runoff and makes the Jersey shore (and coastal New York) a shining example of sustainable development in a way that doesn’t threaten the public. The challenge now is how to come back bluer and greener than ever before.”
Save the Dates
Join Clean Ocean Action, the Gulf Restoration Network and other seaweed groups from the Gulf, the Northeast and across the nation and our blue planet this May 13-16 at Blue Vision Summit 4 in Washington, D.C. (Hotels are expected to sell out during that time, so book early!)
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