One Bay Area city may surrender land to the rising sea

A $900 million plan outlines how Hayward is preparing its sewage plants, natural gas power plant and 1,899 acres of marshes and tidelands for  a rising San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco Chronicle, by John King, July 2, 2021
LINKS TO THE SERIES: Mission Creek, Foster City, Hayward

By 2100, we may need to let rising waters cover portions of today’s shoreline, once and for all.

“You’ve got to be forward-thinking,” said Al Mendall, who served on the Hayward City Council from 2012 until December. “As a layperson, it seems obvious to me that we’re going to have to consider some form of retreat at some point. Not just in Hayward, but all around the Bay.”

Before San Francisco Bay’s shoreline was recognized as an irreplaceable resource, it was where cities put garbage dumps, highways and industrial zones. Out of sight, out of mind.

That’s why the west edge of Hayward north of Highway 92 includes two sewage plants and the natural gas power plant that opened in 2013. The white toll booths of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge shimmer in the haze of automobile exhaust. Two stumpy hillocks conceal long-closed dumps.

But there also are 1,800 acres of protected marshes and tidelands, along with the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center built in 1986. Even as new warehouses and research parks are built next to such preserves, populations of species like the snowy plover and salt water harvest mouse continue to increase.

A group of pelicans rest in a channel near the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center last month.

Three pelicans rest in a channel near the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center last month. Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

It’s a juxtaposition that feels oddly timeless, but the placid scene can be deceptive. Already, several times each year, the combination of high tides and strong winds send sheets of water fanning across the trail from the interpretive center. Factor in the likelihood of significant sea level rise and the rare could become commonplace.

Sea level rise is fueled by higher global temperatures that trigger two forces: Warmer water expands oceans while the increased temperatures hasten the melting of glaciers on Antarctica and Greenland and add yet more water to the oceans.

Variations of this forecast — inconvenience followed by upheaval — are found all along the edges of San Francisco Bay. The difference is that Hayward worked out a detailed plan for what might lie ahead.

In February, Hayward’s City Council approved a set of strategies on how to adapt the shoreline zone to what climate change might bring between now and 2070. In some areas, the city would restore marshes or relocate trails. In others, new levees would shield industrial functions that cannot be moved, like the wastewater treatment facility.

John Blanchard/The Chronicle | GIS data from ART Bay Shoreline Flood Explorer, Hayward Area Shoreline Planning Agency, Scape and Hayward Regional Shoreline Adaptation Master Plan

The effort was led by Scape, a New York landscape architecture firm that has been active in sea-level-rise planning since Hurricane Sandy laid waste to coastal New York and New Jersey in 2012.

Unlike some bay settings — such as San Francisco’s heavily developed Mission Creek or Foster City, where a levee already protects homes — Hayward’s shoreline area offers room to maneuver. The area studied by Scape extends 3¼ miles from Highway 92 past the city’s northern border, while extending inland as much as 2 miles, past the power plant and research buildings to modest older homes.

Bicyclists are in the foreground riding along the Hayward Regional Shoreline. In the background the San Francisco skyline is visible amid fog and clouds.
San Francisco rises in the distance as cyclists ride through the Hayward Regional Shoreline last month. Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Scape’s team of designers and engineers was selected in 2018 by the Hayward Area Shoreline Planning Agency, which includes representatives from the city, the East Bay Regional Park District and the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District.

The scale of the area captured the firm’s notice. So did the scale of Hayward’s ambitions.

“Plenty of cities and agencies are beginning to study risks. Hayward is one of the few places taking the next step and trying to offer solutions,” said Gena Wirth, who led the Scape team.

The 244-page plan lays out steps that can be taken in coming decades to stay ahead of the changes that would accompany daily tides 4 feet above current levels. Another 3.3 feet were added to account for the waves that could be triggered by a once-in-a-century storm.

“You want to look for how you can restore natural systems in a way that magnifies the overall benefits,” Werth said. “It’s all about establishing a vision and then breaking it down into bite-size components.”

None of this is easy — or cheap.

The combined price tag for everything in the plan tops $900 million, and there is no funding yet. But the recommendations are split into 26 projects of varying size — the idea being that pilot programs and smaller initiatives can kick off within the next few years, building momentum for larger projects in later decades.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, definitely,” said Erik Pearson, the environmental services manager for Hayward’s Public Works department. “This is something we can use as a guide.”

The approach is applauded by scientists and officials wrestling with the challenge of a future in which the old danger — developers wanting to fill in the bay — is replaced by the need to keep the bay from reclaiming the low-lying lands at its edge.

“The level of sophistication and thoughtfulness is rare,” said Jessica Fain, the head planner of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency created in 1967 to watch over the health of the bay. “There’s a range of solutions spelled out, and also a real dedication to pursuing them.”

This includes what potentially is the most controversial solution of all.

After it describes various natural methods to enhance and protect the shoreline, the plan devotes two pages to “managed retreat.” Or as Scape puts it, “a management strategy for retreating from vulnerable coastal areas” and “adapting to sea level rise over time.”

In one design scenario, Scape went so far as to study moving the Interpretive Center from the south end of the area, near Highway 92, to the top of one the hillocks that hide a former dump. Besides protecting the center from flooding, this option “maintains visibility of the structure and offers expansive views of the Bay.”

Al Mendall, who served on Hayward’s City Council from 2012 until last year, has been an advocate for Hayward’s planning efforts along its shoreline. Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

The final plan doesn’t include this move. But it emphasizes that if sea level rise matches current projections, the relocation of buildings and services “would likely be needed … long-term.”

That topic rarely is discussed, except in coastal areas that routinely flood or suffer dangerous levels of erosion. But Hayward officials inserted it deliberately.

“It’s important to mention that the concept exists” within the larger discussion, Pearson said. “At 4 feet, it doesn’t make sense to look at retreat. But at some point after that, it may be the best approach.”

Experts familiar with bay’s potential reach welcome the willingness of Hayward and the design team to acknowledge this.

“We need to stop thinking, ‘This is going to be here forever,’” said Letitia Grenier. She leads the resilient landscapes program at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, which advised Scape on the Hayward shoreline’s environment. “That’s not the way the world works. We need to learn to live with that.”

Will Travis, who was the executive director of the bay commission when it released its first sea level projections in 2007, has a similar view.

“The hard decisions will be what not to protect,” he said. “How you prioritize where to put your (limited) resources.”

The plan went to Hayward’s City Council on Feb. 16. It passed on a 5-0 vote.

Mendall, the former council member, was excited to see the council act in unison — and with no public opposition.

“We wanted something doable, not pie-in-the-sky,” he said. “It’s a tool for the next generation to preserve and protect the shoreline.”

An aerial view of the Hayward Regional Shoreline. In addition to restored marshes, it includes wastewater storage ponds and a field of solar panels. Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle



EDITING – Mark Lundgren

VISUALS – John Blanchard, Carlos Avila Gonzalez,
Guy Wathen, Alex K. Fong, Drawings animated in Mental Canvas


GIS DATA – BCDC (2017). Adapting To Rising Tides Bay Area Sea Level Rise Analysis & Mapping Project: SF Bay [spatial data file]. SF Bay Conservation and Development Commission