SLO County ponders climate changes

Water shortages and threats to road and other critical infrastructure were identified by county leaders as two of their top concerns about global climate change.

About 100 local elected and government officials as well as concerned citizens participated in a daylong workshop Wednesday in San Luis Obispo to discuss strategies for minimizing and preparing for the severe impacts of climate change that are expected over the coming decades.

“It is not realistic to think that this is going to be easy,” County Supervisor Adam Hill told the group.

Climate scientists with the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy say San Luis Obispo County can expect to experience these changes by 2100: temperatures 3 to 9 degrees warmer; up to one third less rainfall; longer, hotter summers; drier soils; severe droughts punctuated by severe storms; double or triple the area burned by wildfires and more than four feet of sea level rise.

Workshop participants consistently identified water shortages and the need to conserve water as top priorities. Less rainfall, warmer temperatures and saltwater intrusion into groundwater are all expected to exacerbate water shortages.

Roads and other infrastructure are also at risk, said Ron DeCarli, head of the county’s Council of Governments. Highway 1 at Piedras Blancas and Highway 101 at Shell Beach Road are already threatened by sea level rises.

Scientists have recorded eight inches of sea level rise over the past century. Rising sea levels inundate beaches, flood low-lying areas and erode coastal bluffs.

Plans are underway to reroute Highway 1 at Piedras Blancas farther inland, DeCarli said. Rerouting Highway 101 through Shell Beach is not an option, so other strategies must be developed to protect the road, DeCarli said.

City and county planners are already developing a two-pronged approach to deal with climate change in the form of developing climate action plans and updating county planning policies, said Chuck Stevenson, manager of the county’s long range planning division.

One prong is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce the severity of climate change. Vehicles account for the largest share — 39 percent — of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The county, as well as cities such as San Luis Obispo, are implementing plans to reduce those emissions by developing alternative transportation and encouraging employees to work at home and take other steps to avoid daily commutes.

The other prong is to make the county more resilient to the effects of climate change once they happen. Suggested strategies to do this include: maintaining wildlife migration corridors so that wildlife can move about to find new habitat; protecting wetlands in order to prevent flooding and store fresh water; and increase local food production.

On the bright side, San Luis Obispo County is much farther ahead of most other communities in the state and country in preparing for climate change, said Judy Corbett, executive director of the state Local Government Commission, which is coordinating the climate change planning effort.

Many of the natural ecosystems in the county are still intact which will buffer the effects of climate change. But most importantly, local leaders are already starting to plan for climate change and its effects, organizers said.

“The decisions we make today will absolutely affect how future generations live,” said Larry Allen, county air pollution control officer.

A final report on the county’s climate change strategies is due in October.