How Sea Level Rise Poses a Looming Threat to San Leandro’s Underground Infrastructure | KQED extension

“It’s not that people don’t care,” said Mok, who grew up in San Leandro, where the vast majority of residents are people of color. “I’m able to draw on what the community is saying and drive it forward [the San Leandro City Council] and be that extra amplification of the voices of the community.

A former community organizer, Mok says he is committed to ensuring this community is able to persevere through hazy skies, heatwaves, floods and other increasingly frequent weather conditions.

“Ultimately, it’s my community that suffers,” they added.

The San Leandro shoreline makes up less than 3 percent of the entire San Francisco Bay rim, but sea level rise will affect the entire region. Mok’s work is fueling a regional partnership to prepare every inch of the coast for the future.

A Bay Area Regional Shoreline Adaptation Plan is expected to be completed in mid-2024. The team behind it, led by Dana Brechwald, must get the consents of more than 40 cities and counties, including San Leandro, to involve environmental justice communities and develop uniform standards for sea level rise.

“We want to make sure we take into account the impacts on neighbors so we don’t have this problem of a city behind a high wall and everyone around it flooded,” Brechwald said.

An Asian American person sits and looks away from the camera.
Hoi-Fei Mok, sustainability manager for the City of San Leandro, stands outside the San Leandro City Hall on June 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It is not yet clear how San Leandro’s underground infrastructure will be affected by rising groundwater beneath the city. Maps produced by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the Pathways Climate Institute show that even 1 foot of sea level rise will cause groundwater to emerge in San Leandro.

The city’s stormwater pipes appear to be in good shape, according to Hassan Davani, an associate professor at SDSU and a water resources engineer who leads the team collaborating with San Leandro. Davani’s models show no major short-term threats. However, he said, his work, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, does not include many other underground infrastructure such as sewers, underground power lines and drinking water pipes.

In addition, by examining groundwater data from the United States Geological Survey, maps of the city’s underground infrastructure, and midway climate models, Hassan concluded that as climate change worsens, the current stormwater system will almost certainly “interrupted”. by the end of the century. It might appear that the bay pushes the drainage system higher, preventing rainwater from escaping and in turn flooding inner city areas.

Two young men stand by the side of a road and look at a handheld screen.
Hassan Davani (right), a San Diego State University professor and water resources engineer, said that as climate change worsens, San Leandro will become increasingly vulnerable and its current stormwater system will almost certainly be “disrupted” by the end of the century. Kian Bagheri (left) is a PhD student in Davani’s lab. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

“We will have flooding inland, miles inland, because the system will be filled with water on the downstream side,” he said.

But if more extreme climate models are taken into account, disruption to the stormwater system could occur around mid-century, Davani said.

Pauline Russo Cutter, who served as mayor of San Leandro until earlier this year, said the city has also tested its wastewater infrastructure and has yet to find any red flags.

But he acknowledges that “it’s only a matter of time” before rising groundwater becomes a problem.

“If no one is thinking about it, then these things appear. This is what can sink a city,” she said.

A middle-aged white woman with dark brown hair stands beside the shore of San Leandro Bay talking towards the camera in sunglasses.
Former San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter says “it’s only a matter of time” before emerging groundwater becomes a problem. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

As he prepares for rising sea levels, Mok, the sustainability manager, dreams of a range of solutions: from building levees to using marshes to absorb the waves.

“I think nature-based solutions have a lot of benefits that I think would be great for us,” Mok said.

But, despite the imminent threat posed by sea level rise — with the bay expected to rise by at least a foot over the next three decades — Mok acknowledges that actively preparing for it now can be a tough sell given more immediate concerns like security issues. budget, staff shortages and ongoing health emergencies.

A view of a road leading to a marina sign.
A sign for the San Leandro Marina marks the entrance to the shoreline in the Mulford Gardens neighborhood of San Leandro on June 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Sea level rise is hard for people to understand,” Mok said. “I hope this is an opportunity to not be alarmed, but to realize that this is something that is coming, not just in San Leandro, but regionally.”

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