Climate Change Adaptation Planning in San Luis Obispo County

Jessi Kershner
Posted on: 12/18/2010 - Updated on: 10/28/2021

Posted by

Jessica Hitt

Project Summary

Climate change is likely to affect natural and human systems in San Luis Obispo (SLO) County including impacts to agriculture, human health, natural resources, infrastructure, emergency response needs, and tourism. The National Center for Conservation Science and Policy (now the Geos Institute), in partnership with the Local Government Commission, convened a series of workshops in SLO County to identify resources and populations that are most vulnerable to climate change and then to develop initial strategies to increase the capacity of human and natural systems to adapt to these changes. The process, called ClimateWise, was developed by the Geos Institute and continues to be refined and tested throughout the nation.


SLO County is located in central California and extends from semi-desert in the east to rugged coastline along its western border. Predicted climate change impacts for the region include: more frequent and intense storms and floods, extended drought, increased wildfire, sea level rise, and an increased number of heatwaves. These climate change impacts are likely to significantly affect natural ecosystems and resources as well as local residents and their livelihood.

In 2009, the Geos Institute began a project to assess local climate change projections for SLO County with model output from the Mapped Atmosphere-Plant-Soil-System (MAPSS) Team at the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. The results of these projections were presented in the report Projected Future Climatic and Ecological Conditions in San Luis Obispo County.

The project was part of a three-year pilot study funded by the Kresge Foundation to integrate climate change adaptation planning across natural and human systems in different parts of the nation. SLO County was chosen as a pilot project based on several factors including high current and projected future biological diversity, agricultural and wine industry importance, federal land ownership, important coastal resources, and support from the county government. A series of workshops were held in 2009–2010 in order to develop a suite of adaptation strategies to cope with climate-related changes. The results of the workshops are presented in the report Integrated Climate Change Adaptation Planning in San Luis Obispo County.


The MAPSS Team at the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station downscaled model output for temperature, precipitation, fire patterns, and native vegetation distribution across the nation; the modeling results were then mapped and analyzed specific to SLO County by scientists at the Geos Institute. During a series of workshops in 2009–2010, local leaders and experts identified over a dozen changes that could occur in SLO County based on these climate projections and peer-reviewed scientific publications. Workshop participants then developed a suite of recommendations for reducing climate change impacts to socioeconomic systems (health and emergency preparedness; agriculture and related tourism; water resources and infrastructure; infrastructure in general; and coastal and marine resources and tourism) and species and ecosystems (coastal and nearshore marine; freshwater aquatic and riparian; woodlands and forests; and grasslands and shrublands). Recommended strategies were presented to local decision-makers and leaders, as well as the general public, by workshop participants. Public/leadership input was used to prioritize strategies for implementation. Emphasis was placed on strategies that work to reduce climate change impacts across multiple sectors. 

Outcomes and Conclusions

The report represents the collective efforts of many people in SLO County including elected leaders, county planners, land managers, public health officials, concerned citizens, and others. Adaptation strategies recommended in the report are expected to reduce SLO County’s vulnerability to climate change impacts and also maintain the ecosystem services that people depend on; these strategies are covered in detail in the report. In 2011, the county released its Climate Action Plan (CAP), which incorporated many of the recommended adaptation strategies from the GEOS report. The CAP is being implemented through a variety of programs and with extensive public involvement. San Luis Obispo County residents, businesses, and government collectively play a role in achieving the goals of the CAP and, in turn, a sustainable future. Seven incorporated cities throughout the SLO region are also implementing CAPs, including Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, and San Luis Obispo.

Identified barriers to action included: lack of monitoring, regulation, and knowledge of groundwater withdrawal and use, and lack of policy directing agencies to incorporate future conditions into resource management plans (in both human and natural systems). Several opportunities for simultaneously addressing current problems as well as climate change include: renewable energy installations, restoring ecological systems, and improving the quality of life for vulnerable populations (e.g., by planting trees for shade or providing open space to reduce urban heat build-up).


Kershner, J. (2021). Climate Change Adaptation Planning in San Luis Obispo County [Case study on a project of the Geos Institute]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. (Last updated October 2021)

Project Contacts

Position: Climate Change Scientist

Affiliated Organizations

The GEOS Institute is a nonprofit, science-based organization dedicated to helping both human and natural communities predict and prepare for a changing climate. To this end, the Geos Institute applies the best available science to natural resource conservation issues through its scientific publications and its ability to link respected scientists to decision makers.

Related Resources

Adaptation Phase
Sharing Lessons
Sector Addressed
Climate Justice
Conservation / Restoration
Culture / Communities
Disaster Risk Management
Education / Outreach
Land Use Planning
Rural / Indigenous Livelihoods
Transportation / Infrastructure
Water Resources
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