California is shrinking

By Sabrina Brennan

It’s time to accept that coastal California is shrinking. A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts chronic Bay Area flooding from rising seas as early as 2060. “Cities around the San Francisco Bay will begin to experience more frequent and disruptive flooding in the coming decades and will have to make tough decisions around whether to defend existing homes and businesses or to retreat,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, senior analyst in the Climate and Energy Program at UCS and a report author.

The Pacific Institute calculates that San Mateo County will lose more in property value than any other county in the state. Property damage in the county is estimated to be in the region of $39 billion, with sea level rise projected to affect more than 100,000 residents.

In July, the Mercury News reported that San Mateo and Marin Counties and the City of Imperial Beach filed a lawsuit in Marin County Superior Court. The suit alleges that, “major corporate members of the fossil fuel industry, have known for nearly a half century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel products creates greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet and changes climate.”

The suit argues that 37 oil, gas and coal companies actively worked to “discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence and persistently create doubt” in “a coordinated, multi-front effort.”

The suit asserts what many of us already accept as fact, that fossil fuel companies “have promoted and profited from a massive increase in the extraction and consumption of oil, coal and natural gas, which has in turn caused an enormous, foreseeable, and avoidable increase in global greenhouse gas pollution.”

Armoring the coast and building levees in the Bay will be an unimaginably expensive public undertaking, and that doesn’t include relocating highways, railways, airports, and other critical infrastructure.

Last month, the Guardian reported that Mayor Serge Dedina said that up to 30% of Imperial Beach could be affected by climate change. “As the lowest-income, highest poverty-rate city in San Diego County, we have no capacity to pay for the extensive adaptation measures.” Within 15 years flooding could affect tens of thousands of Marin County residents and cause upwards of $15.5 billion in property damage. “This lawsuit is intended to shift those costs back where they belong – on the fossil fuel companies,” says Marin County supervisor Kate Sears.

A well-funded army of lawyers is organizing to defend deep-pocketed multinationals that include San Ramon-based Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell, while at the same time the Plaintiffs continue to approve new development within sea level rise inundation areas. These new developments will add to the already huge cost of removal and replacement of hospitals, schools, airports, fire stations, police stations, ports, roads, railroad tracks, pump stations, sewage treatment facilities, power plants, utilities, hazardous material sites, and more.

As communities become dependent on costly levee systems to stay dry, and climate projections continue to worsen, we will soon be spending exponentially larger sums of money to protect development now being built in inundation zones. One good example is the 8-mile long levee do-over in Foster City that is now budgeted for $90 million. That levee must be rebuilt three feet higher or residents will be required to buy costly flood insurance.

In addition to suing oil companies our elected representatives have a responsibility to protect the public from the huge financial burden sea level rise will bring to coastal California. They can do this by using their powers to implement policies that limit development in known inundation areas and to prohibit future shoreline armoring in favor or wetland restoration.

Suing the fossil fuel companies is a great start to holding those responsible for the coming disaster to account, but that must only be a beginning. Without common sense and practical pragmatic legislating any legal action becomes nothing more than a show. If they really want to leave a lasting legacy current local legislative bodies must show through use of their powers that they have an understanding that development in inundation zones is literally pouring money down the drain. Anything less is going to be an expensive and complex disaster.

Published in the Daily Journal on Aug 14, 2017 and on the Everything South City website. Published in the Half Moon Bay Review on Aug 23, 2017. 

Oyster Point Marina is result of Bay fill dump era

Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline    First there were marshes; then there were dumps. The dumps were eventually turned into regulated landfills, and the landfills into shoreline parks.

Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline

First there were marshes; then there were dumps. The dumps were eventually turned into regulated landfills, and the landfills into shoreline parks.

The Oyster Point Landfill is a closed, unlined Class III landfill that was in operation from 1956 to 1970. Prior to 1956, what would become the Oyster Point Landfill area consisted of tidal marshlands and upland soils and bedrock.

Between 1956 and 1970, the City of South San Francisco leased the site (approximately 57 acres) to South San Francisco Scavenger Company

In 1956, Scavenger began disposal operations at the landfill. Initially, municipal solid waste was disposed of on the ground and burned. This activity ended in 1957 following the enactment of laws prohibiting open air burning of rubbish in the Bay Area. To address the new air quality restrictions South City and Scavenger established a solid waste disposal site on the submerged lands just east of the original Oyster Point. 

The landfill was developed in three phases. Filling of the first section began in 1957 and was completed by late 1961. The first area to be filled extended into the Bay about 1,500 feet eastward from the original bluff. Scavenger placed waste directly into the tidelands and used a wire fence to control the discharge of solids into the Bay due to tidal action. Waste disposal operations eventually resulted in the relocation of the shoreline approximately 3,000 feet to the east of the pre-landfill shoreline. 

The landfill material consists of up to 45 feet of poorly compacted municipal and industrial waste. Typical waste found within the landfill includes the following: chemicals, drums, paper, cardboard, organic matter, wood, glass, metal, rubber, rocks, concrete, and other materials. The base of the landfill material has been compressed into, and mixed with, the upper part of the Bay Mud. The volume of waste in the landfill is approximately 2.5 million cubic yards and total tonnage of this material is approximately 1.4 million tons. This volume of waste would cover a football field almost to the height of the Empire State Building. 

Beginning in 1961, the landfill received liquid industrial waste for disposal. The types of liquid waste included paints, thinners, and coagulated solvent sludge. The liquid wastes were placed in a sump (Sump 1). No records describing the construction of the sump have been found. Liquid industrial wastes were disposed of in this sump from 1961 until 1966. In July 1966, the City of South San Francisco discontinued the use of Sump 1 and used Sump 2 until 1967. The total volume of liquid industrial waste received by the landfill in 1965 and 1966 is estimated at 608,351 and 378,680 gallons, respectively. Sump 1 alone is almost enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. 

Consistent with landfill practices at that time, no liner was installed at the site. Waste disposal design features such as liners, cellular division of waste, and leachate collection systems were not installed. Instead, the waste materials were placed directly onto the Bay Mud and soils overlying bedrock. In order to contain the solid waste from contact with waters of the State, Bay Mud berms were constructed around portions of the waste disposal areas in 1961, 1962, and 1964. However, there is no data to suggest that the industrial waste sumps were ever constructed with additional berms or dikes to control the migration of liquid wastes. 

In 1962, a small craft harbor was constructed along the north shore of the landfill. To create a breakwater for the east side of the marina, the second phase of landfill was placed in the form of a mole extending from the eastern end of the first fill and north about 400 feet into the Bay. The third phase of filling began in 1964 and was accomplished by dredging up Bay Mud and forming mud dikes and a dike-enclosed cell in which solid waste was later placed.

Upon completion of the disposal operations, various landfill closure activities took place through the late 1980s. The closed landfill then became the site for development of the Oyster Point Marina/Park.  

The landfill is currently owned by the City of South San Francisco and is operated as a marina, ferry terminal, yacht club, hotel, office space, and open space. South City is responsible for landfill maintenance and the San Mateo County Harbor District manages marina operations pursuant to a Joint Powers Agreement that terminates in 2026.

South City hopes to redevelop the site. The 2015 Semiannual Oyster Point Landfill Report states that a project would include excavation of landfill materials at the former Oyster Point Landfill and relocation of these materials on- and/or off-site. The landfill cap would be upgraded to meet the current requirements of Title 27 of the California Code of Regulations with the approval of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and San Mateo County Environmental Health Division. 

The first phase of redevelopment plans call for up to 600,000 square feet of office/R&D space, envisioned as a biotech campus, and possibly a retail/restaurant building, in the area currently occupied by the existing commercial development at the eastern side of the landfill site. Phase I also includes the reconfiguration of Marina Boulevard and a portion of Oyster Point Boulevard, and a shuttle turn-around will be constructed adjacent to the Ferry Terminal. Parcels to the east of the new development will be graded and improved as sports fields. Further east a future hotel and retail complex is envisioned. The existing Yacht Club structure and the Harbor District maintenance building would remain.

Where is the wisdom in developing such a risky site?  Health, safety, and public access concerns include flooding from landfill subsidence and sea-level rise, Bay saltwater breaching the landfill cap, underground electrical saltwater intrusion, gas explosions, and liquefaction.

On Dec. 9, 2015, Bruce H. Wolfe, Executive Officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board sent the City of South San Francisco an enforcement letter regarding recurrent flooding overtopping the landfill cap.  The San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control BoardSan Mateo County Division of Environmental Health, and Bay Area Air Quality Management District are the agencies that regulate the landfill.


Refer to the following documents for more info:

King Tide flooding at Oyster Point Marina—Wed., Nov. 25, 2015


Accountability, Culture Shift & Teamwork

The following letter was delivered to the board on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015.

Dear President Mattusch and Commissioners,

Over the past few years the Harbor District has experienced financial internal control problems and procurement problems. Tonight my informational report regarding IT equipment, software and support procurement (Item 6) is a reflection of my concerns about the District’s fiscal accountability. My hope is that this report will serve to clear the air on the specific reasons for my concerns. It is my sincere hope that the board and new management will put these problems behind us with improved fiscal oversight, innovative financial transparency tools such as OpenGov, appropriate accounting software, and policy recommendations from the Finance Committee.

Culture Shift

The Harbor District has experienced a rapid culture shift over the past ten months. In January 2015 the board gained two new commissioners, shifting the District in a more open, progressive, and public-friendly direction. The retirement of the past General Manager at the end of 2014 and the relocation of the District’s administrative office back to the Coastside in May 2015 were indications that a transition was unfolding.

General Manager Peter Grenell ran the District for over 17 years. Commissioner Jim Tucker was first appointed in June 1998 and served for almost 17 years. Since their departure in December 2014 the District has experienced significant and sometimes painful culture shift towards a more contemporary form of governance. Past mismanagement left the current board with an astounding number of complex policy issues to clean up, and that process may require years to complete. To their credit the Harbor Patrol has continued to provide excellent service and emergency response while the board and management makes necessary changes. 

Theory of Change 

With change comes creativity, innovation, improved accountability, opportunities to evaluate and define long-term goals, and the need for greater cooperation.

Diversity Balances Biases

The District needs a complementary team – a team in which the members are different from each other, not similar, which means acknowledging the importance of differences in style and opinion. Each person’s style provides a counterpoint to the others. Our differences can provide opportunities to balance naturally biased judgments. Giving consideration to diverse perspectives and thinking critically about the challenges facing the District is a necessary process that builds a solid foundation for strong decision-making. That is teamwork, and is the reason why most governments are multi-member boards.

Trust, Cooperation and Flexibility

To keep the forward momentum the board and management must build trust within the community by being transparent and responsive, setting clear achievable goals, modernizing outdated policies, improving fiscal accountability, and correcting past mismanagement. And to do this we must become nimble.

Daryl Connor, in his 1998 book Leading at the Edge of Chaos, popularized the term “nimble” describing nimble organizations as those with “a sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to the demands of change while delivering high performance.” Nimble leaders create goals and performance measures which recognize and reward nimbleness—for example, discovering a new way to meet regulatory requirements while also encouraging public participation.

Nimble leaders anticipate the need for adaptability by hiring flexible employees and preparing current employees for continuous change. They constantly push for higher performance, yet recognize that failure is to be expected with innovation. 

Fluid Structure

Nimble leaders create fluid organizational structures that encourage interactions and change to meet new situations and solve new problems. They do not simply move boxes around on the organizational chart, but create structures that encourage collaboration and teamwork.

Implementing Objectives to Meet Goals

Nimble leaders balance near-term objectives and long-term goals. Commissioners and management staff need to look beyond the next election and not lose sight of the bigger picture and long-term goals. While responding to the public’s demands for greater transparency, for example, a nimble leader will also ensure that administrative staff members are receiving training and experience in working with new transparency tools such as OpenGov.

Adapting to Change

Nimble leaders overcome vested interests, legacy systems, and sacred cows by encouraging open communication and creativity.

Proactive vs. Reactive

Nimble leaders are always on the lookout for “bad news,” knowing that finding it before it finds the organization is important in order to respond effectively. They find ways to identify internal problems by encouraging internal critics, rotating personnel and hiring people with new perspectives. They discover problems in service delivery by meeting their customers.

Nimble leaders do not rely on a crisis to force change. Crisis in and of itself is not a powerful impetus for long-term change. If it were, cardiac events would cause heart patients to alter their lifestyles appropriately. Fear does not create change. More often, fear leads to denial and creates a narrative that reframes facts to fit preconceived ideas.

Instead, nimble leaders are proactive so that their agencies respond quickly and effectively to the demands of change.

Simple Plan

The Harbor District needs a simple turnaround plan.

One of the nimble leader’s most important roles is to distill an organization’s many priorities and strategies into a simple plan, so that employees can remember it, internalize it and act on it. With clear goals and metrics, everyone can pull in the same direction, knowing how their work contributes to those goals.

Rules of the Road

In 2015 the Commission adopted board norms and a new culture began to take shape based on three values: respect, integrity, and equality. This is good news because cynicism and politics can metastasize within an organization, and are amplified by public opinion when an agency lacks core values or is not actually living out its code of ethics.

What truly matters is that the District has to live by its values, reinforce them every day and not tolerate behavior that’s at odds with those values. On July 15, 2015 the board unanimously approved the San Mateo County Harbor District Code of Ethics and Values adapted from the 1999 City of Santa Clara code. This was a positive step forward.

New Leadership

The past 10 months has presented numerous challenges for employees, contractors, the public and the Board. The District is in the process of implementing recommendations made by the Civil Grand Jury and LAFCo. And while necessary management changes and policy changes have occurred, more improvement is still needed.

The Harbor Commission is moving in a positive direction, and with Steven McGrath as the new General Manager comes new opportunity. My hope is that the Commission, the new General Manager, and the new administration will work cooperatively, in the best interest of the District and the people we serve. 

Thanks for your consideration,


The following two sources were liberally borrowed from: 

Leading a Nimble Organization  |  Susan Spaddock  |  October 31, 2014

Management Be Nimble  |  Adam Bryant  |  January 4, 2014