For political activists concerned about global warming and the rising level of Puget Sound, a confluence of events last week at the state capital presented an opportunity too good to pass up.
The start of 2013 legislative activities Monday coincided with one of the highest tides of the year – a 16.9-foot whopper that at 7:47 a.m. pushed salt water to the verge of parking lots at the head of Budd Inlet, within sight of the Capitol dome.
As legislators gathered for their initial sessions, activists rallied around a mock-up of the Earth in flames and a 6-foot-tall polar bear puppet, determined to get legislators to take action on climate change.
“We have infrastructure at risk,” said Mike Coday, an Olympia activist who organized the high-tide tour for elected officials. “I think it’s really hard to deny it any more.”
Despite the evidence that sea levels are rising, jurisdictions throughout the Puget Sound region – including Pierce County and the Port of Tacoma – have been slow to react, paralyzed by the potential enormity of the problem and lingering doubts that scientists’ projections of dramatic tidal change really will take place.
One high tide doesn’t prove sea levels are rising, any more than a photo of a polar bear stranded on an ice floe proves polar ice is melting.
High tides pushed higher by storms are routine in Puget Sound. Monday’s tide – and even the 17.6 king tide Dec. 17 – didn’t break records. The all-time record tide for Olympia, which measured 18.2 feet, happened in 1977.
But what is convincing even longtime skeptics is the increasing frequency of high tides and their increasing height over time.
Globally, sea levels rose about 8 inches between 1870 and 2008, an average of 0.06 inches a year. In the past 10 years, the rate of increase has more than doubled, to 0.14 inches a year.
In Washington state, the increase is expected to be slightly less than the global average, in part because of tectonic plate action off the Northwest coast that is pushing the land upward.
Still, as global temperatures rise, scientists say the level of Puget Sound is likely to increase 6 inches by mid-century, making recent tidal extremes routine, and pushing tides that coincide with storms and strong El Niño events as much as 3 feet higher.
In Olympia, where much of the downtown area is built on low-lying fill, tides and storm surges that high would turn parts of the city into a Northwest version of Venice.
Projections are nearly as dramatic in some parts of Tacoma and Pierce County.
At the Port of Tacoma, the king tides on Dec. 15-17 undercut a sidewalk and parking area just a few feet from the corner of the port administration building.
The same tides ate away fence post footings and undermined a light pole transformer and a fire hydrant on the Blair Waterway, forcing port officials to make emergency repairs.
Port spokesman Tara Mattina readily admits the port has done no projections with regard to sea-level rise and has taken no actions other than cleaning and repair, even though much of the port’s property and critical transportation infrastructure are covered with red ink – indicating flooding potential – on every sea-level projection map produced by climate scientists.
“The port has not taken on the issue head-on,” Mattina said. “This needs to be policy-driven, and at this point that hasn’t happened.”
Uncertainties in climate projections make planning difficult, Mattina said.
For example, a National Academy of Sciences report issued last summer and currently regarded as the latest and best word on sea level rise on the West Coast, projected a 2-foot sea level rise in Washington State by 2100.
However, the range of possibilities for 2100 in the report extends from just 4 inches all the way to 56 inches, based on a complex array of interacting factors.
“How much is enough?” Mattina asked. “How strong is strong enough? How certain is it? Those questions haven’t been answered yet.”
Hedia Adelsman is very familiar with that response. She’s the state Department of Ecology’s executive policy adviser on sea level rise and climate change, as well as the state’s liaison with local governments.
“For policymakers, it’s very difficult to plan for something that’s not creating a major crisis for them right away,” she said. “It’s really difficult to go to a developer and say, ‘You can’t build here because 20 years from now this may be flooded.’”
But exact predictions and timelines are not necessary for communities to begin planning, Adelsman said.
“Don’t even look at 2100,” she said. “Look at what’s happening right now.”
Mapping and vulnerability assessments are critical first steps, she said.
Variations in wind patterns, geography and underlying geology mean tides won’t rise evenly in all parts of Washington or even all parts of Puget Sound, Adelsman said, meaning the planning needs to be addressed community by community, not top down with one-size-fits-all standards from the state.
“It’s important to look at what are the facilities that are most at risk,” she said. “Wastewater treatment facilities, hospitals, emergency facilities ... there needs to be contingencies related to those.
“It’s risk assessment,” she said. “A community needs to decide first of all what is the risk. Is it high, is it low? What would be the worst case? Is infrastructure OK if it’s flooded for a few days? Or is it a hospital, a critical facility. If it is, then they might say, ‘My gosh, this is something we have to start thinking about.’”
While the collision of tectonic plates is lifting up land off the Washington coast, that does not appear to be the case in Puget Sound, particularly the South Sound.
Some data indicate the land from Tacoma south to Olympia might be sinking at a rate of about 0.1 of an inch a year, meaning the sea level rise will be relatively more dramatic there.
Climatologist Philip Mote, a former University of Washington researcher who’s now the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research, put that data forward with fellow authors in the 2008 report, “Sea Level Rise in the Coastal Waters of Washington State.”
Last week, Mote who was in Australia for an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting, said the discrepancy in vertical movement might have been overstated.
“There are different data sets and different periods of record,” Mote said in an email exchange. “Of the data we assessed, I think the South Sound doesn’t show up as dramatically as it did with the data we used in the 2008 report.”
Local governments throughout the Puget Sound area vary widely with regard to their response to sea level rise.
“Some communities are taking it seriously and planning for it,” Adelsman said. “Others are not. Local governments are not fully engaged,” she said, “but they do want to know more.”
As is often the case in environmental matters, the City of Seattle has taken the lead. A “green ribbon commission” in Seattle sent out a list of 150 recommendations last week to update the city’s Climate Action Plan. Among them is to “put a price on pollution” with a statewide carbon tax or cap-and-trade program.
Using existing data and projections, planners at Seattle Public Utilities have created a detailed climate change map to predict flooding and protect infrastructure, including a new sea wall planned for downtown in conjunction with the new tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
The City of Olympia has been proactive, too, primarily because it is at such apparent risk from rising water. Significant development in the city lies only a few feet above today’s highest tides. The city’s first assessment, “Preliminary Assessment of Sea Level Rise in Olympia, was published 20 years ago.
One of the most telling signs that Olympia is taking sea-level rise seriously is the location chosen for its new City Hall, out of the projected flood zone and two feet higher than required by code. The city located its data center on the fourth floor of the new building rather than the first floor to protect it from flooding. In 2009, the city required all new commercial buildings to start 4 feet above the flood line.
Tacoma has been less active.
“We are just now starting to look at it and analyze it,” said Mike Slevin, assistant director of the city’s Public Works Department. “Honestly, though, when we look at 6 inches of sea-level rise over the next 40 years, with regard to utilities at least, that’s not going to make a huge difference for us.”
Even so, Slevin said, federal grant money for vulnerability studies has recently become available, and the city will try to get some of that funding.
Pierce County acknowledged sea-level rise in a general risk assessment conducted in 2010, but it has done no detailed vulnerability mapping.
“Over the next several years we should begin to see its effects develop on the local scale,” the report concluded, noting the likelihood of flooding of railroad tracks that follow much of Pierce County’s coast, the Port of Tacoma and adjacent industrial areas, the area along Ruston Way, and portions of Day Island, Gig Harbor and Wollochet Bay.
“Private homes on Sunset Beach, Day Island and Salmon Beach will begin to be flooded during high tides,” the report said, concluding, “Either land will have to be raised with fill, massive seawalls built, or some industry or roads will have to be relocated to higher ground, along with homes in the most threatened areas.”
Existing flood regulations and proposed changes to Shorelines Management Act regulations take rising sea levels into account, noted Debora Hyde, a special projects coordinator with Pierce County Planning and Land Services.
“If somebody comes in and does a substantial development, or if they’re improving a house more than 40 percent, then they have to comply with all the new regulations,” Hyde said.
Flood regulations require a 2-foot clearance between expected water levels and a development’s floors and pipes. Proposals for new shoreline regulations, set to go before the County Council in March, would require 100-to-150-foot buffers with vegetation for new construction.
The reality of the threat posed by rising seas and storm surges became clear to many more people because of Hurricane Sandy, but politicians still have been slow to act, Adelsman said.
“We think every extreme storm is going be a real lesson, and everybody in Congress will finally say, ‘This is real,’” she said. “But that hasn’t happened.”
Even some homeowners who are apparently at greatest risk have trouble coming up with a sense of urgency about sea-level rise.
“It doesn’t concern me,” said Donna Prewitt, who lives with her husband, Charles, on the northern tip of Tacoma’s low-lying Day Island. December’s tides surrounded their home, left 10 inches of water in their basement and ruined a refrigerator.
“There’s no question the climate is changing,” Prewitt said, “but to me, that’s just a cycle. The Earth has changed before, and I just think that someday it will go the other way.”
In the meantime, Prewitt said, they will simply start stacking things on higher blocks. In the end, Adelsman said, the most effective catalysts for change might turn out to be insurance companies, hit with billions in losses from storms like Hurricane Sandy.
“Insurers are in business,” she said. “They’re motivated by science and probabilities, not politics.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693