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by Susan Holloway | Bio

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Beyond “Get out your Mops and Buckets”: Adaptation to Sea Level Rise in Vulnerable Communities

30 Jun 2020 9:33 AM | Deleted user

When Climate Change and Racial Injustice Interact

  Dr. Kristina Hill
Associate Professor at UC Berkeley
  Ms. Terrie Green
Director of Shore Up Marin City

On June 18, the EFM sponsored a Community Education Event called “Water: Sea Level Rise and Nature-based Adaptation.” In this Notebook post I follow up on one theme of the discussion: the effects of sea level rise in Marin City, a vulnerable community already experiencing flooding from storm surges.

The participants speaking to this topic were Terrie Green, Co-Director of Shore Up Marin and Kristina Hill, Associate Professor, UC Berkeley. They are working together on planning and advocating for short- and long-term adaptation actions that Marin City can make to offset the effects of sea level rise.

A Snapshot of Marin City

Marin City is built on marshland at the base of Mt. Tamalpais. Prior to World War II, the area now occupied by Marin City featured a few houses and a dairy farm. However, during the war years, the government used the land to create housing for workers at the shipyard in Sausalito, including a significant number of African Americans who had migrated to the Bay Area from the South. After the war, work in the shipyards diminished and the workers dispersed throughout the county and elsewhere. Many of the African American residents remained in Marin City, in part because they were restricted by exclusionary covenants from moving to other towns in the county. By the 1970s, over 75% of the population of Marin City was African American.

In subsequent years, residential and commercial development continued in Marin City, including construction of a large shopping center. Currently, 25% of the residents identify as African American and another 22% speak Spanish as their primary language. As of 2014, approximately half the total population was living in public housing units. Approximately 22% of the population lives below the poverty line, and the median family income is roughly $40,000, one third the median income in Marin County.

Marin City residents tend to be economically and socially vulnerable.

Marin City is Already Impacted by Flooding

   Marin City

Marin City sits in a low-lying area to the west of the hills forming the Sausalito Watershed and one mile east of the San Francisco Bay. There is only one connecting road from Highway 101 into Marin City. During high tides and after rainstorms, this access road is sometimes flooded, backing up traffic and preventing residents from moving expeditiously in and out of the area. In her EFM presentation, Ms. Green described the array of effects experienced by Marin City residents as a result of these transportation problems, including difficulty in getting to places of employment and accessing medical care. The flooding also causes damage to homes and businesses.

What Does the Future Hold in Store? Water From Above and Below

In the not-too-distant future, Marin City will be affected by sea level rise in addition to seasonal flooding. Sea level rise worldwide is a consequence of climate warming caused by excessive amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. Climate warming leads to the melting of continental glaciers and alpine glaciers. The warm air also heats up the ocean water, causing it to expand.

There is another aspect of sea level rise that I had not been aware of, namely the hidden phenomenon of groundwater rise. When the sea level rises and moves toward land, the salty water under the bottom of the sea also moves inland where it mixes with fresh groundwater. The saltwater pressures the ground water upward into the unsaturated zone above the water table. This rising groundwater damages transportation networks as well as sewage and water systems. It also distributes soil pollutants and it destabilizes the land, causing building foundations to heave. All of this can happen before the surface water from the ocean has visibly breached sea walls and other barriers.

At present, models of sea level rise used in planning adaptation by Bay Area communities do not take ground water rise into account, making them unrealistically conservative. However, scientists, including Dr. Hill and her research team, are developing accurate methods for making these calculations.

The reality of sea level rise cannot be denied. A report called “Adapting to Rising Tides Bay Area” (ART Bay Area) released in March of 2020 provides a detailed analysis of the potential consequences the Bay Area faces in the absence of coordinated, prioritized adaptation to sea level rise. The authors identified Marin City as a “high consequence hot spot” in part by being a “vulnerable community in which social and economic conditions make it more difficult to prepare for, respond to, and recover from flooding.”  

What are the Solutions?

  Floating homes in Amsterdam

In the short term, Dr. Hill and Ms. Green recommended that the county consider creating at least one additional drainage culvert to carry water from the town toward the Bay. Temporary mobile pumps are also essential to remove water from the most flood-prone areas. Other possibilities include dredging the existing detention basin and building a levee between the low-lying area adjacent to Highway 101 and the detention basin. The County should also consider making significant improvements to Highway 101, including raising the highway and the on- and off-ramps connecting to Marin City. It may also be possible to create a canal system and additional artificial ponds to wick away the rising ground water that is associated with sea level rise.

As part of a later phase, the community should begin to envision alternative forms of housing. Dr. Hill has proposed that housing and commercial developments in Marin City may need to be moved to higher ground. Another possibility would be to replace existing structures with a lagoon dotted with floating homes, as is already the case in parts of Amsterdam.

We Know Adaptations Exist But Will They be Implemented in Marginalized Communities?

These solutions require focus and funding from the county. As Ms. Green described in her presentation, a history of systemic racism in Marin has exacerbated rather than diminished the gap between affluent white communities and economically vulnerable communities of color like Marin City and the Canal area in San Rafael. Will this pattern be perpetuated in planning for adaptation to sea level rise? Or will our affluent county take the steps necessary to support our vulnerable communities?

Ms. Green called for all county residents — not just those living in the most vulnerable communities — to urge their elected officials to support investment in adaptation strategies for Marin City. Ms. Green also called for an equity audit of county allocation of funds for flood mitigation and other essential adaptation solutions. Have these adaptations — temporary pump trucks, dredging, wetland restoration, new drainage pipes etc. — already been funded in wealthier parts of Marin?

Such an equity audit is underway in Oakland. Their Equitable Climate Action Plan (ECAP) will “identify ambitious actions we can take to combat climate change while also ensuring that frontline communities — those that have been harmed by environmental injustice and who are likely to be hurt first and worst by the impact of climate change — will benefit first and foremost from climate action.”

At this point, given the clear evidence that sea levels will rise precipitously in the coming decades, the need for action cannot be denied.

National Responses to Sea Level Rise: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The response of our local, state, and national government to the suffering of citizens in less powerful communities has often been anemic at best. The “survival of the fittest” model too often dictates the flow of funds, whether it be to school improvement or environmental sustainability. And government assistance for the marginalized community comes — if it comes at all — for rebuilding after a disaster rather than for focusing ahead of time on prevention and adaptation.

At the national level, the likelihood of coordinated planning of equitable adaptations seems remote at best. In January of this year, President Trump mocked an Army Corps of Engineers analysis of the costs and benefits of building a sea wall around New York City, calling it “a costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly idea that, when needed, probably won’t work anyway. It will also look terrible. Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready!” He failed to mention that he had obtained a permit to create two sea walls to protect his golf resort in Ireland from rising sea levels and water erosion. In February, without explanation or comment the Corps halted their analysis of flood adaptation options for the Northeastern Seaboard.

So Much for the Bad and the Ugly… What About the Good?

Managed retreat in Oakwood Beach depended on citizens’ decision to facilitate buy-out of their residences  

Estimates by the World Bank suggest that every dollar that goes into flood defenses yields a return of $7 to $10. But the outlay needs to be substantial. Dr. Hill noted that the Dutch spend 2% of their national GDP on flood adaptation. The focus of flood abatement in the Netherlands for the past millennium has been to create a series of flat lands called polders that are protected by dykes. Do rich residents have a bigger polders or better dykes that poor ones? No, as Simon Kuper notes in an article in the Financial Times, the key to Dutch success has been a “system of pragmatic, unideological co-operation to protect themselves” or “a politics of eternal coalition.”

Other examples of effective adaptation to extreme weather and community flooding can be found in Elizabeth Rush’s book Rising. For instance, she describes the response of citizens in Oakwood Beach on Staten Island to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, showing how extensive community organization led most residents to accept managed retreat to a new geographic location.

Rush writes:
When communities long made vulnerable to existing structural inequalities are also directly impacted by climate change, it can awaken a sense of vulnerability, and also an awareness that this vulnerability is shared. This realization brought the residents of Oakwood Beach together: demanding access to one of the most progressive sea level rise adaptation techniques we have, and at an even more basic level, inspiring them to raise their voices and regain control over their community’s destiny.

Moving toward Adaptation in a Context of Social Justice

I hope that the voices of these writers, advocates, and scholars inspire you to contact your elected officials as well as administrators at Caltrans and the Department of Public Works. Ask them what they are doing to support proactive, equitable approaches to sea level rise adaptation in the coming decades!

To learn more…..

Elizabeth Rush talks with residents on both coasts about their experience of sea level rise in her moving and informative book: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, published in 2019 by Milkweed Editions.

Click here to access the video of the EFM Community Education Event called “Water: Sea Level Rise and Nature-based Adaptation”. Also, to find out more about the EFM partner organizations for this event, and learn how they can help you take action, click here.  

If you need inspiration, read this article by Simon Kuper: “Can the Dutch Save the World from the Danger of Rising Sea Levels?” Financial Times Magazine, January 20, 2020.

That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at

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