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Dike overtopped during a king tide tidally inundating low‐lying lands on South Bay. | Photo from Humboldt Bay Area Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment

Sea Level Raises Risks in Humboldt Bay

Humboldt is experiencing the fastest rate of water elevation on the West Coast, but that is only one of the many problems facing the bay.

Humboldt is experiencing the fastest rate of water elevation on the West Coast

Humboldt Bay is ground zero for sea level rise. In the last 100 years, the sea level rose 18 inches. This the most rapid rate of sea level rise on the West Coast.

Humboldt County Environmental planner Aldaron Laird has 30 years of experience and spent ten years mapping and analyzing Humboldt Bay through a series of vulnerability assessments to help prepare our community for the inevitable impacts of sea level rise.

“All the damage is going to occur with two and three feet of sea level rise,” Laird said. “It doesn’t really matter when that’s going to occur. We basically have to prepare for that now.”

Laird reported that the rate of rise will continue to increase. A two or three foot increase in the average elevation of high water will breach the miles of diked shoreline as early as 2030.

“All the damage is going to occur with two and three feet of sea level rise. It doesn’t really matter when that’s going to occur. We basically have to prepare for that now.”

Aldaron Laird, Humboldt County Environmental Planner

“When we go from two feet to three feet of water elevation change, it’s the tipping point in Humboldt Bay,” Laird said. “The 23 diked hydro logic units that we have on the Bay, all of them will be over topped when we go from 2 to 3 feet. So everything behind that will be impacted.”

The land behind the dikes is privately owned agriculture, residential areas, business parks and industrial assets, not to mention municipal water lines, PG&E gas lines, waste-water treatment lines and electrical transmission towers. The threat is legitimate and significant.

“The major urban areas that are most at risk are King Salmon and Fields Landing,” Laird said. “They are at risk straight from sea level rise. Half a meter to a meter, and those areas will be underwater. They aren’t behind dikes.”

Linda Gill is the manager of Gill’s by the Bay, a restaurant located on the King Salmon waterfront. Gill said she hadn’t thought too much about the threat her restaurant faced as sea levels continue to rise.

Projected Inundation Area (Stillwater) on Humboldt Bay for Mean Monthly Maximum Tide with 6.6 feet (2.0 meters) of Sea Level Rise. | Photo from Humboldt Bay Area Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment

“Right now we are just going with the flow,” she said in a phone interview.

Wave energy had been diverted by the north and south jetties to an area called Booner Point, the site of an old PG&E nuclear power plant. There are still nuclear fuel rods stored there.

“They decommissioned it, and they stored all the nuclear fuel rods 115 feet back from the bluff on their property with all that wave energy focused on that bluff,” Laird said. “It’s experiencing the highest rate of erosion anywhere on Humboldt Bay, and those nuclear fuel rods are going to be there forever. It’s probably the stupidest place on Humboldt Bay to locate a nuclear fuel storage site.”

Jennifer Kalt, the director of Humboldt Baykeeper, said the county needs to be prioritizing protection rather than considering potential hazards.

“Instead of fighting, local governments and state agencies need to work together to make a plan,” Kalt said.

“Instead of fighting, local governments and state agencies need to work together to make a plan.”

Jennifer Kalt, Director of Humboldt Baykeeper

Kalt said the planning process seems to have reached a stalemate as local and state jurisdictions fail to agree on a comprehensive plan. The unique issue about Humboldt Bay is that the California Coastal Commission has first and final say on improvements to the shoreline.

“So we have this conundrum on Humboldt Bay that I think the Coastal Commission has really never faced anywhere else in California,” Laird said. “The entire shoreline of Humboldt Bay is in state jurisdiction. If the county said they wanted to rebuild all the dikes, they couldn’t. They would have to ask the Coastal Commission and the Coastal Commission could say no.”

Laird has submitted the final sea level vulnerability assessments. Now the individual actors need to come together in unison to take action and move beyond the planning phase and into the action phase.

“Anything that can be moved should be moved,” Laird said. “Anything that can be hardened, redone or redesigned so that it can accommodate being submerged in saltwater should happen.”

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