Climate change is a hot issue in San Luis Obispo County

Yearlong effort will seek to understand effects of climate change and what can be done about them

dsneed@thetribunenews.comJuly 3, 2010 

San Luis Obispo County is emerging as a state leader in the effort to prepare for the effects of global climate change.

Armed with $105,000 in grant money, the county, along with all seven of its cities, has embarked on a yearlong effort to understand what effects climate change will have on the county and what can be done to lessen or prepare for them.

“I feel that this is one of the most important issues facing not only the country but the world,” said San Luis Obispo City Councilwoman Jan Marx, one of the local leaders of the effort. “We need to be clear about the possible consequences.”

The impacts could be direct and local — from harming agriculture and tourism to worsening droughts and hurting water supplies.

A daylong workshop to discuss climate change will be from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. July 14 at the Embassy Suites in San Luis Obispo. The purpose is to bring the public into the process. More than 100 people are expected.

“The next step is to hear from residents about what they think is important and what their ideas are,” Marx said.

San Luis Obispo is one of only two counties in the state to undertake such a systematic look at climate change adaptation. The other is Fresno County.

The effort examines six key areas of the economy: water, health, infrastructure, agriculture, coastal marine and tourism. The Local Government Commission, the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy and the Kresge Foundation are providing funding and technical assistance.

“Scientists have established that the early signs of climate change are already evident in California,” said Judy Corbett, executive director of the Local Government Commission. “Smart local governments will understand this and prepare now.”

The effort is being spearheaded by Marx and county Supervisor Jim Patterson. Climate change researcher Susanne Moser examined how climate change will affect the county’s natural systems, human population and economy.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, global surface temperatures have risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. They are expected to rise 2 to 7 degrees more by 2100.

Federal climate scientists say burning fossil fuels and emitting other greenhouse gases are causing heat-trapping gases to accumulate in the atmosphere. Although Earth’s climate has changed throughout history, the rapid warming seen today cannot be explained by natural processes alone, they say.

It is impossible to predict with any certainty the effects of climate change because historic models will be inaccurate and some changes can compound or counteract others. However, scientists are confident that in California temperatures will be warmer, the Sierra Nevada snowpack will diminish, the distribution of plant and animal species will change, and sea levels will rise 3.3 to 4.6 feet by the year 2100.

According to a report from UC Berkeley, reacting to climate-caused disasters such as extreme weather, sea level rise and wildfires will cost the state from $300 million to $3.9 billion each year this century. Taking action to limit and prepare for climate change can reduce those costs greatly, Corbett said.

The strategy for dealing with those changes uses a two-pronged approach. One is to limit greenhouse gas emissions to minimize climate change, while the other is to prepare for the changes that will happen because of gases already emitted, Patterson said.

“Local communities in the county will need to plan for such changes in order to prevent potentially catastrophic consequences,” he said.

Elected officials involved in the local climate change effort have drafted a series of preliminary adaptation strategies. The goal is to provide cities and the county with planning recommendations.

Most are broad and include such goals as water conservation, sustainable land-use planning, education and engagement of the public, use of public transportation, adaption of air quality rules, and protection of aquifers by relocating wells and using saltwater barriers.

The city and county of San Luis Obispo are already taking action by working on climate action plans. This local involvement was one of the main reasons the county was selected for the climate adaptation effort, said Kate Meis, project manager with the Local Government Commission.

“We knew there was political support and that’s really important,” she said. “I don’t think we would have pursued this without local champions.”

Other reasons include the fact that this is a coastal county and has good biodiversity and robust agriculture. Models developed here could be easily adapted to Monterey and Santa Barbara counties, Meis said.

A final report is expected by late summer and will be available at the Local Government Commission website, www.lgc.org.

Climate change: Who, what, when, where

The San Luis Obispo climate change adaptation workshop will be from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on July 14 at Embassy Suites Hotel, 333 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo.

For more information, go to www.lgc.org/adaptation/slo or contact Kate Meis at kmeis@lgc.org.

To read a UC Berkeley report on the effect of climate change on California, go to www.next10.org/research/ research_ccrr.html.

Local elected officials involved in the climate change adaptation effort:

Ellen Beraud, Atascadero City Council

Karen Bright, Grover Beach City Council

Andrew Carter, San Luis Obispo City Council

Joe Costello, Arroyo Grande City Council

Ted Ehring, Pismo Beach City Council

Chuck Fellows, Arroyo Grande City Council

Nick Gilman, Paso Robles City Council

Adam Hill, county supervisor

Jan Marx, San Luis Obispo City Council

Robert Mires, Grover Beach City Council

Jim Patterson, county supervisor

Janice Peters, Morro Bay Mayor

Dave Romero, San Luis Obispo Mayor

Allen Settle, San Luis Obispo City Council

Noah Smukler, Morro Bay City Council

Kris Vardas, Pismo Beach City Council

Betty Winholtz, Morro Bay City Council

Mike Winn, Nipomo Community Services District director

Climate change expected to have profound effects in five ways

Local experts and researchers say climate change will affect San Luis Obispo County in five overlapping ways:

Water: The county already has a pattern of dry years interspersed with much fewer wet years. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this, meaning there could be longer periods of drought broken up by severe rainfall events. Existing infrastructure may not be able to handle the temporary overflow of water.

Agriculture: More than 55 percent of the county is zoned for agriculture, with wine grapes being the most valuable crop. Droughts, heat and flooding could significantly disrupt farming and change the character of the landscape.

Public health: Extreme weather events have the potential to cause more heat waves, worsen air quality, decrease water supplies, cause more wildfires and increase allergens. All of these can increase mortality, particularly among the elderly and other vulnerable members of society.

Coastal marine: Sea level rise and severe storms can greatly worsen coastal erosion and flooding and hasten saltwater intrusion into groundwater aquifers. A significant loss of beaches would be a severe blow to the county’s tourism industry. Increasing temperatures can also cause acidification of oceans, hurting fish stocks and aquaculture.

Transportation: The Pacific Institute estimates that 28 miles of roads in the county could be vulnerable to sea level rise. Highways 1 and 101 through Pismo Beach, Cambria, San Simeon and Cayucos would be particularly vulnerable. Piers, jetties and other harbor infrastructure at Morro Bay and Port San Luis would also be at greater risk.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

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