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Project Summary

Benicia is a waterfront community in the San Francisco Bay Area. The city is home to a thriving arts community, beautiful weather and scenic vistas, a downtown full of charming boutiques and antique shops, and an industrial park and port that provide jobs to Benicia residents. However, all of this is threatened by the impacts of future climate change. Sea level rise, storm surge, and extreme temperatures are projected to increase significantly over the coming decades. In order to maintain its high quality of life, prosperous businesses, productive ecosystems, and vibrant neighborhoods, Benicia is proactively planning for the challenges that a changing climate may bring. To do so, Benicia is conducting a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and creating an Adaptation Plan that identifies adaptation measures which emphasize sustainability, social equity, economic vitality, and cost effectiveness, and where feasible, are able to integrate into existing or future City plans. This adaptation plan will help Benicia prepare for and become a more resilient city that can manage the risks of today as well as those of tomorrow.

With funding from the California Coastal Conservancy Climate Ready Grant program, the City is in the process of testing (launched July 2014 and concluding July 2015) the application of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s (BCDC’s) Adapting to Rising Tides (ART) vulnerability and adaptation model. This model relies on strong stakeholder engagement. In order to engage the appropriate people, two advisory groups were convened to provide input throughout the project: the Technical Advisory Committee consists of local, regional, and state public agencies that own, operate, or otherwise contribute to the planning and funding of infrastructure and natural habitats in Benicia; and the Community Advisory Group consists of members of the public with a vested interest in the project (e.g., homeowners, business owners, community group representatives, and City commissioners). In addition, there has been an evening public meeting, events with Benicia High School students (California King Tides Project), and an online input forum to gather as much information as possible on the needs and concerns of Benicia residents. The cross-sector nature of this project helps to ensure that integrated adaptation strategies are being developed which can protect multiple physical assets and result in a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. 

Project Background

The City of Benicia adopted a Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2009, which mentioned the need to adapt to a changing climate. With a CAP coordinator on board to focus on implementing the plan, the City applied for and was awarded funding to take its resiliency planning to the next level. In April 2014, the City received a California Coastal Conservancy Climate Ready Grant (Round 1, $150,000). Currently, the City is in the process of testing (launched July 2014 and concluding July 2015) the application of BCDC’s Adapting to Rising Tides (ART) vulnerability and adaptation model (originally launched November 2011).

Project Goals

The City is currently in the process of refining Climate Change Adaptation Goals with input from the community, key groups, and local and regional agencies. As of February 2015, the City’s Climate Change Adaptation Goals include the following:

  1. Protect the beauty and functionality of the many assets that support Benicia’s high quality of life, including historic districts and buildings, the shoreline, wetlands, marshes, and shoreline recreational features.
  2. Support all of Benicia’s residents and businesses where they live and work in the face of climate change vulnerability, and help them to plan for and recover quickly from climate-related emergencies.
  3. Incorporate planning for climate change vulnerability and adaptation in all City functions, including planning, public works, parks and recreation, and emergency preparedness.
  4. Revise local land use plans, development regulations, and building codes to aid and protect future development projects in the face of climate change.
  5. Serve as a regional leader and model in planning for climate change and adaptation, and cooperate with regional agencies and neighboring jurisdictions in planning for regional readiness and resilience.
  6. Educate the public on the need for personal disaster preparedness, adaptation, and investment in resilient infrastructure.
  7. Use public art to illustrate issues and educate the public regarding climate change, vulnerability, and adaptation.

Planning Area

Benicia is located on the north bank of the Carquinez Strait and the north side of Suisun Bay in Solano County. The project area is located along the city’s shoreline, extending from the Benicia State Recreation Area in the west to the city’s eastern extent, just past the east end of the Benicia Industrial Park. The project area near the shoreline is relatively flat before sloping upward as one proceeds farther inland. The project area has a strong and relatively persistent breeze. The shoreline area encompasses a variety of land uses, including natural habitats (e.g., marshes, wetlands, parks, beaches), park areas (some of which also contain natural habitats), industrial/commercial developments, a port, and residential areas.

Climate Impacts of Concern

The project assesses some of the ways that climate change could affect Benicia’s community assets and areas, and what the consequences of those effects might be. This assessment specifically focuses on potential changes in temperature, sea level rise, and storm surge, including their effect on local drainage. Changes in precipitation are not covered because they are projected to be minimal for the project area and changes in precipitation is one of the most uncertain climate change impacts. Although California is currently in one of the worst droughts in history, this project does not address drought because this is a topic best suited for a state-wide planning effort rather than a local plan. That being said, the City is spearheading many efforts to conserve water locally and effectively manage persistent dry conditions.

Project Implementation

This project is following the ART Planning Process developed by the BCDC and includes the following phases.

Scope and Organize (completed). The scoping process was completed in September 2014 and included three primary activities. First, the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) and the Community Advisory Group (CAG) were convened to provide input throughout the project. Both groups helped to identify the existing conditions of local infrastructure and historic extreme weather damage, and helped brainstorm project goals.

Second, Benicia-specific climate change projections were produced using downscaled (i.e., a strategy for generating locally relevant data from global climate models) climate change data sets and tools. Climate scenarios for precipitation and extreme temperatures were developed using the U.S. Department of Transportation’s CMIP Climate Data Processing tool that translates climate data into a wide range of variables commonly used by planners and engineers. Projections for sea level rise and storm surge were developed based on state guidance and publicly available mapping tools (NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer and the Future San Francisco Bay Tidal Marshes Tool for marsh areas). Based on the severity of the climate change variables, sea level rise/storm surge and extreme temperatures were selected for continued evaluation.

Third, the TAC and CAG provided input on the selection of community assets and geographic areas for analysis in the study.

Assess (completed). Benicia is already vulnerable to current hazards such as drought, flooding, earthquakes, and wildfires. It is important to understand how infrastructure has been affected in the past and how asset managers might deal with the same or exacerbated future events. This information was determined through interviews and meetings with local stakeholders (including City staff and regional agencies), a review of public reports and peer-reviewed scientific journals, and the professional judgment of the project team.

Define (completed). The Vulnerability Report discusses how sea level rise, storm surge, and changes in temperature will impact community assets and areas, and what the consequences of those effects might be on the community, the environment, and the economy. It discusses potential vulnerabilities in the following sectors: Community Facilities and Services, Transportation, Port of Benicia, Wastewater, Stormwater, Natural Habitats, and Energy Infrastructure. Information was collected from asset owners and managers through an online survey developed by BCDC and edited by the project team to reflect local conditions and preferences.

Plan (to be completed by June 2015). The City of Benicia is currently working to develop adaptation strategies that could increase the city’s resilience to sea level rise, storm surge, and extreme temperatures. These options will undergo a qualitative evaluation to determine their impacts on economy, the environment, social equity, and governance. A high-level benefitcost assessment will be conducted on the priority actions.

Currently, the project team is in the process of developing evaluation criteria that will be used to select priority adaptation strategies. City department heads provided much-needed input so that criteria reflected department needs and City Council priorities, and would give City decision-makers the information they needed to implement strategies.

The top adaptation strategies will be documented in a report that will include opportunities to integrate them into existing City plans, an appropriate implementation time frame, and key actions. The road to resilience will be laid out in a straightforward, easy-to-follow manner that highlights the top priorities but also provides a reference database with a larger suite of City department-specific strategies that will be searchable by sector, vulnerability, time frame, and implementer.

The City is also working with the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law to assess legal and regulatory barriers that could impede planning for climate change and the implementation of adaptation strategies. That analysis will be incorporated in the final Adaptation Plan.

Implement and Monitor (following this project). The project team will conduct a case study at Amports, the owner and operator of the Benicia Port. This will include a site-specific vulnerability analysis and recommend strategies for implementation to protect business operations. Although outside the scope of this project, implementing and monitoring climate change adaptation strategies will be vital steps in the climate change resiliency process. The project team will also develop a monitoring plan to help the City advance their work. 

Project Outcomes and Conclusions

Collaborative Outreach

This project relies on an integrated team of dedicated and motivated partners, each doing his or her part to help identify climate change vulnerabilities and develop feasible adaptation strategies. Several collaborative formats were used to ensure this was a robust participatory process:

  • Presentations at the local high school, the California King Tides event at the Benicia State Recreation Area, and student participation in the evening public meeting allowed the thoughts and ideas of young residents to be heard. This population will truly be impacted by more severe climate change events, and they deserve a say in how climate change is addressed.
  • TAC and CAG workshop-style meetings allow feedback from the arts community, Community Sustainability Commissioners, private companies and business owners, residents, City departments, emergency response personnel, and regional, state, and federal agencies. Their insight and perspective provided critical vulnerability information that otherwise would not have been discovered. It was challenging to engage City staff, who are extremely busy with limited time and resources. The CAP coordinator learned that the best approach was to ask specific questions and schedule in-person meetings where staff could answer key questions. Asking staff to fill out surveys or respond via email was not successful.
  • Additional information on existing conditions, vulnerabilities, and consequences was collected through an online survey of asset owners and managers. This survey used Google Forms, which allowed users to only see questions relevant to their sector. This survey was determined to be too long and too complicated. The survey was originally developed by BCDC and asked many relevant and important questions; however, asset managers found it cumbersome and many did not take time to fill it out.
  • Another objective of the project is to educate the public about climate change risk and adaptation options. The project held an evening open house to discuss project findings and next steps and developed an online engagement tool (through Open Town Hall) to allow community members to comment on the vulnerability findings and to discuss adaptation options. This interactive tool enables broader public feedback than could be achieved through meetings alone. Additionally, it enables members of the public to see what others are saying and engage in a conversation. The Open Town Hall forum is still available to residents, but we have had limited input so far—only 60 visitors and 5 responses. City staff spoke with Community Sustainability Commissioners (a City Council–appointed commission) to get feedback on the design of the site. The project team is currently updating the site to be more user friendly; for example, the site will include better explanations of project materials, clear direction on where to get more information, and local photos. The CAP coordinator also realized the need to continually promote the site via City websites, social media, and email blasts to City commissions and boards and by making presentations at community meetings. The CAP coordinator also communicates with local and regional partners to identify better methods for effective outreach, e.g., the City of Berkeley’s efforts as part of the 100 Resilient Cities project.

Academic Partners

Two Berkeley Law students and the director of the Energy Program, Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, are helping the City identify legal and regulatory barriers that may impede adaptation strategy implementation. This input, early in the process, ensures that the City of Benicia knows the steps it has to take to be successful. The City can focus time and resources in the near term on strategies with lower barriers to implementation.

Replicability – Sharing Lessons Learned with Other Jurisdictions

One of the project goals is to emphasize replicability of the process and gather lessons learned for others looking to undertake this work. As such, all climate information was collected from publicly available data sets and resources. The temperature and precipitation downscaling tool is available on the U.S Department of Transportation website, the NOAA Digital Coast Sea Level Rise viewer was used to map sea level rise and storm surge levels, the Climate Central Surging Seas tool was used to conduct financial assessments of impacts, and the Point Blue Conservation Science Future San Francisco Bay Tidal Marshes Tool was used to visualize the impacts of sea level rise on marshes (taking into account vertical and horizontal accretion). Additionally, the project used the triple bottom line of sustainability— economy, environment, and social equity—to frame and guide all elements of the work. The consequences of asset failure on each of these areas were assessed and the adaptation options are being evaluated to ensure they are sensitive to each of the critical topics. These topics are being shared with others in the Bay Area, including regional agencies like the Joint Policy Commission, and farther afield through conferences and other information-sharing venues.

Already, this project has imbued City staff and the public with a growing awareness of climate change vulnerabilities and the actions that could be taken to make Benicia a more resilient city. The knowledge of how climate change will affect people’s jobs and daily lives is the first step toward sustained action.

Approval of Plan & Integration into Existing City Plans

The City and its project partners anticipate that the final plan will be presented to the City Council in June/July 2015 and that the Council will approve the plan. It is not anticipated that the Council will officially adopt the plan. That being said, City staff is hopeful that by identifying opportunities for integration into existing City plans, adaptation strategies will become a part of City operations. For example, the fire chief has agreed to incorporate adaptive strategies in the Emergency Operations Plan update (scheduled in 2015). In addition, the City’s Local Hazard Mitigation Plan is set to be updated in 2015 and the Fire Department has agreed to integrate local vulnerabilities/strategies into that plan. Finally, the Public Works Department has already added the Adaptation Plan to its list of priority projects and will consider implementing strategies as part of its next Capital Improvement Plan update.

Resources Produced

At the conclusion of the project, City staff will have a better understanding of all existing flooding locations, future flooding locations, sea level rise projections, and temperature changes. The City will also have a matrix of adaptation strategies searchable by vulnerability, sector, or strategy. This matrix will be available to any City department but will be most used by the Public Works Department.

Resources Needed

At the conclusion of this project, the City will have many useful documents, maps, and data, but it will still need funding to implement the priority adaptation strategies. Partners are needed to ensure that any City action taken is consistent with regional and state guidance and policy. Implementation and monitoring recommendations will be included in the final Adaptation Plan, but additional support (dedicated staff) will be needed to monitor and track implementation progress.

Next Steps

  1. Complete the final version of the Vulnerability Report.
  2. Finalize evaluation criteria that will be used to select priority adaptation strategies.
  3. Assess public input received and incorporate in the planning process.
  4. Develop the draft Adaptation Plan.
  5. Conduct case study at Amports (private owner/operator of Benicia Port) and incorporate lessons learned in the Adaptation Plan.
  6. Incorporate findings from Berkeley Law student research team.
Project Keywords

Recommended Citation

Porteshawver, A. (2015). City of Benicia Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg. [Case study on a project of the City of Benicia, ICF International, PlaceWorks, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission]. Retrieved from CAKE: www.cakex.org/case-studies/city-benicia-climate-change-vulnerability-assessment-and-adaptation-plan (Last updated February 2015)