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Can Silicon Valley Adapt to Climate Change?

The high-tech mecca will have to focus its short attention span on long-term planning for sea-level rise and other global warming impacts
Facebook Headquarters, Menlo Park



flickr/Jitze Couperus

MENLO PARK, Calif.—The headquarters of Facebook sits on a sprawling campus beside San Francisco Bay, a scenic location with water bordering three sides.

The 57-acre site features two- and three-story office buildings in shades of red and orange, outdoor basketball hoops, and sofa-sized benches on large lawns. Just outside the property, however, is a reminder that this location has a major drawback.

A roughly 8-foot levee curves next to Facebook's land. Built when Sun Microsystems owned the spot in the 1970s, the grass-covered buttress holds back water from the east. Another barricade on the north blocks the daily high tide.

As seas rise because of climate change, however, those barriers won't be enough, said those studying options to protect California's Silicon Valley.

Facebook's site at 1 Hacker Way "is pretty much surrounded by tidal waters," said Eric Mruz, manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which abuts the social media giant's campus.

"Facebook is going to have to deal with sea level rise," Mruz said. "It's going to be a huge threat, with sea level rise projections skyrocketing now. They will definitely have to do something with their levees to protect their property."

Facebook is just one of the well-known companies in Silicon Valley's technology mecca that will face the effects of climate change in years ahead. Others located near the water here include Google, Yahoo, Dell, LinkedIn, Intuit, Intel, Cisco, Citrix and Oracle. Scientists predict seas will climb as much as 16 inches by midcentury and 65 inches by 2100. Storms are expected to intensify and occur more often. Both pose dangers for businesses and homes near the bay.

Yet Silicon Valley, a place that in many ways creates the future through technological advances, largely has yet to tackle the repercussions that climate change will bring in years ahead, several people said.

'They don't think long-term'
The life cycle of products made in Silicon Valley is "so short they don't think long-term," said Will Travis, senior adviser to the Bay Area Joint Policy Committee, which coordinates regional planning.

It's a conflict some are working to change. The region will have to start addressing the coming threats, Mruz said.

"It's imminent," Mruz said. "There's no question in my mind; everybody around the bay, we're going to have to do something, at every spot around the bay."

Much of the Golden State's coastline is at risk, experts explained, but Silicon Valley -- home to 3 million people -- is particularly vulnerable. In the early 1900s it was a series of orchards known as Valley of Heart's Delight. As water was pumped up for irrigation, the ground sank.

As a result, Silicon Valley is 3 to 10 feet below sea level, Travis said. Dirt levees exist but don't ensure protection. They weren't engineered but were pushed together when businesses later cleared land to create ponds for harvesting salt.

A draft study from the Army Corps of Engineers found that an extreme storm coupled with higher seas could top them and devastate homes and businesses.

"Starting out, they're already 10 feet below sea level," Mruz said. "If they had no levees in place, that water would be miles inland already. Add sea level rise on top of that, you add storm surge on top of that."

"All of these businesses, Silicon Valley basically backs right up to the bay," Mruz added. "You have all of them, Yahoo, Google, all right there. Without some type of flood protection potentially in front of that, you could flood that whole area. You're talking billions of dollars."

There aren't firm numbers on how much is at risk in Silicon Valley should seas rise as predicted. Santa Clara County -- located 45 miles south of San Francisco -- earlier this year won a $1 million state grant to examine climate vulnerabilities and find potential strategies. That work is projected to take nearly three years.

Tech companies keeping quiet
The Army Corps of Engineers in its draft made some estimates, but its study covered only neighborhoods closest to the bay in the southern portion of Silicon Valley.

In that region, a severe storm decades in the future could flood buildings and contents worth $3 billion, said Mark Bierman, economics section chief in the Army Corps' San Francisco office. If the flood hits water treatment plants in Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and San Jose-Santa Clara, the total value at risk "more than doubles," he said.

Water could cover Interstate Highway 101 and state Route 237, he said. About 700,000 trips are made daily on the two freeways.

"A large enough storm will put a foot or more of water on the highway," Bierman said.

Tech companies wouldn't discuss those potential perils. Facebook, Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn declined to comment or didn't respond to requests for information. At Intuit, spokeswoman Holly Perez said, "We are thinking about this and are in the process of better understanding the science and implications behind it."

Companies also haven't shared their thinking on climate with a local business trade association, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

"They've been shy with us so far," said Mike Mielke, vice president for environmental programs and policy at the group. "In general, my feeling is that folks do get it in Silicon Valley," he added. "They don't have their heads in the sand. ... It's just a question of priorities and finding the right place and the right time to focus on it."

Sen. Feinstein wants action
Some are pushing businesses to get involved more rapidly.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in April urged companies to partner in raising money for better levees in the region. Those could cost $1 billion to $1.5 billion, said Steven McCormick, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based group focused in part on environmental conservation.

At Feinstein's request, McCormick said, the foundation is leading an effort to bring businesses, local governments, residents and others together "and make sure people understand what's at risk." To win federal and state help in the future, he said, there likely needs to be a "commitment of significant funding locally."

But among residents and businesses, McCormick said, there is "very, very, very little" grasp of what climate change could bring to the area. "What would happen if there was even modest sea level rise is just not in people's mindset or understanding," McCormick said.

Likewise, it's challenging to persuade businesses to act when extreme sea level rise is decades off, McCormick and Mielke said.

"When you talk about a 50-year time horizon in terms of sea level rise, people's eyes sort of glaze over because that's too long for planning," Mielke said, adding that most businesses don't strategize more than five years out.

Superstorm Sandy, however, sounded alarms for some.

"There are a lot more people suddenly aware of places that might be at risk" for an unusual event, said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, a local environmental group. While the West Coast doesn't have hurricanes, he said, there are wind-driven storms. And an earthquake could buckle levees.

"If sea level is higher, then more areas are at risk of flooding, including at risk of flooding from a levee that breaks as a result of an earthquake," Lewis said.

The Moore Foundation is commissioning studies to quantify climate threats and potential solutions. By the end of 2013, it hopes to present local businesses with options. McClintock said he plans to make a cost-benefit argument about why action is needed.

'Significant risk' for some
A total of 257 technology companies located in the flood zone are at "significant risk," Mielke said. Of those, seven or eight are "particularly vulnerable," he said.

Mielke didn't identify those companies. But the Army Corps of Engineers in its draft study found that in the southern portion of Silicon Valley, companies in danger of inundation during a severe storm 50 years from now include Yahoo, Fujitsu, Infinera and Texas Instruments.

Most of those sit steps from San Francisco Bay in Sunnyvale. Google and LinkedIn are about 10 minutes north of there, in the Shoreline Technology Park section of Mountain View. Both companies are housed slightly downhill from a golf course that is next to the bay.

There are levees, but with sea level rise and a major storm, "the bay could be overtopped and would be knocking at Google's doorstep shortly," said John Bourgeois, executive project manager with the California Coastal Conservancy.

Google's headquarters sits on a mound that's above street level, which should keep the company dry over the next few decades, Bierman said. But flooding could be just a matter of time without changes in protection, he said.

"With sea level rise, no one in that zone is risk-free," Bierman said.

Theoretically, businesses could choose to move out of the flood zone when sea levels become more of a threat, said McCormick with the Moore Foundation. But there's not much land available at higher elevations, he said.

"An individual company may think, 'Well, I could move.' But when you start thinking, if all of those companies are going to move, where are they all going to go?" McCormick said.

New levee near Facebook?
The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority -- an alliance of local water and flood control agencies -- is studying the feasibility of building a new levee in the Menlo Park area.

"This right here we're looking at is actually below sea level," the group's executive director, Len Materman, said last month as he gestured at the wildlife refuge that's in front of Facebook's campus. "It doesn't take a lot of water for an area that's at or below sea level to be totally inundated."

The San Francisco Bay is just outside that refuge. Without the existing salt pond levees, Materman said, a high tide or tsunami could swamp the area and flood across to the freeway more than a mile away.

The Joint Powers Authority has had only preliminary conversations with Facebook about a new barricade, Materman said.

"I know that they want to bring in more employees ... that's their priority," Materman said. "Their priority is not flood protection or ecosystem protection. Their top priority is not what we're doing. We're proceeding. We hope to do it with the benefit of Facebook's participation."

Right now, however, there's only money to study and develop plans for a levee. The Joint Powers Authority would need to find funding to actually built the barricade. That could involve asking residents to raise their taxes, Materman said.

A proposal could be "targeted to a selection of parcels that pay a much, much higher and escalating amount in flood insurance and are otherwise directly benefited by the [levee] project," he said.

"So we are very hopeful that it can get the required two-thirds vote" for a special tax, or a majority vote for an assessment of the amount needed, Materman said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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