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Coastal Residents Question Where Funds Will Come From To Fight Rising Sea Levels

NOEL KING, HOST:

Coastal cities need billions of dollars to protect their shorelines from rising sea levels, but who should pay for that? Should everyone in, say, San Francisco pitch in? Should private landowners on the waterfront, who knowingly built in risky areas, pay more? NPR's Lauren Sommer went asking.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: The campuses of tech companies are known for their perks. There's free dining, gyms and, at Facebook, a waterfront view of San Francisco Bay.

KEVIN MURRAY: Where we're standing right now is the outboard levee of the Facebook campus in Menlo Park.

SOMMER: Kevin Murray works for the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, an agency that works on flood protection in the area. We're walking on one of the levees that separates Facebook's brightly colored buildings from the bay. But Murray says levee isn't exactly the right word.

MURRAY: They're really just mounds of dirt.

SOMMER: The levees were left over from industrial projects and not really designed to protect people. They don't meet federal engineering standards that ensure they hold up.

MURRAY: The structures that are providing flood barrier now are not adequate and are subject to failure if we have a really big tide or a big wind event or a big storm surge.

SOMMER: Now, these aging levees are being hit with even more water. Sea levels could rise almost 2 feet by 2050. By the end of the century - as much as 7 feet. That threat was clear when Facebook moved in 10 years ago.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So we'll get started with public comment.

SOMMER: Facebook needed approval from the Menlo Park City Council to build its campus, designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry. Attracting a major employer like Facebook didn't just mean jobs. It meant millions of dollars for the city budget. And just to note, Facebook is one of NPR's contributors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: These public benefits are fully embraced by Facebook. We know they will benefit our new friends and neighbors in the community that we plan to make our home, hopefully for a long time.

SOMMER: Facebook expanded again a few years later. Today, the properties are valued at more than $2.5 billion. But before construction started, the company knew being on the waterfront was risky. An analysis found the property is vulnerable to flooding and could be inundated with 16 inches of sea level rise, which could happen within decades. Facebook raised the first floor of some buildings to keep them out of a flood, but the roads and everything else are still vulnerable. So the region is making plans to beef up its defenses with a new 16-foot-tall levee. It'll cost around $100 million. And it's not just Facebook that'll depend on it. So will the city next door, a city with a lot fewer resources.

LEIA GREWE: If we were to get hit, we would be the first.

SOMMER: Leia Grewe lives on the edge of East Palo Alto. We're walking through her neighborhood with her teenage daughter, Heleine, and French bulldog, Pua. In the distance, we can see Facebook's campus on one side and the waters of San Francisco Bay on the other. East Palo Alto is one of the few low-income communities of color left in Silicon Valley, an identity it's trying to hold on to.

HELEINE GREWE: That backyard right there - that used to be my friends Ashley and Mikie's house, but they had to move.

L GREWE: Yeah, the cost of living.

SOMMER: Just like Facebook, Leia and Heleine are in a flood zone, but it's not something Leia thought about until her daughter came home from high school talking about it.

H GREWE: She used to brush it off.

L GREWE: Yeah.

H GREWE: And I'd come back to her just like, Mom, did you know? I'd be, like, very enraged about it.

SOMMER: East Palo Alto has been hit by flooding more than a dozen times, and sea level rise threatens to make it worse.

L GREWE: I'm thinking back to the places that weren't ready. Let's talk about Katrina. That could be us in the next couple of years.

SOMMER: People are already getting priced out, she says. A flood could be the breaking point.

L GREWE: They'll move us out to, like - sorry. I don't want to think about it. But we'll get moved out to, like, Stockton, Sacramento.

SOMMER: Leia and Heleine have started going to community meetings about sea level rise to hear about plans to protect the region.

H GREWE: Their plan included Facebook - that we have to share our resources, which they're supposed to be protecting us, with Facebook. And it's kind of irritating.

SOMMER: She says people in the community are asking, why isn't Facebook doing more? To build the new levee, East Palo Alto is putting in $5.5 million. Facebook is putting in a bit more - $7.8 million. That's enough to protect just one section of their campus. The company's revenue is 2,000 times greater than East Palo Alto's city budget. Most of the remaining funding, $50 million, was just preliminarily granted by the federal government. Hundreds of other projects around the country got nothing. Facebook declined an interview request from NPR, but said in a statement that the company is doing its part to protect its campus and neighboring communities.

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CARLOS ROMERO: New development must pay its way.

SOMMER: Carlos Romero is mayor of East Palo Alto. He says the challenge is that right now, cities don't charge developers or companies that are building in a flood zone.

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ROMERO: All of us are going to have to contribute. And I think that we should indeed figure out a way where corporations who are making billions of dollars contribute to this in a significant way because their very livelihood is challenged.

SOMMER: But the idea hasn't really caught on. Cities often want to encourage development, not discourage it with more taxes or fees. That leaves it up to companies to chip in for sea level rise however they think is fair, says Mark Lubell, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis.

MARK LUBELL: It's not just, you know, Facebook has a part of their campus that can be flooded. It's more like they've got employees coming from all over the region, and to protect their overall workforce from this, they need to invest in it. And they got plenty of money to do it at a scale that's much higher.

SOMMER: Local governments are grappling with this debate all over. Preparing for climate change will take billions, more than most cities can pay. So do taxpayers fund sea level rise, or do those with waterfront property pay more? A.R. Siders of the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center says there is no scientific formula to follow.

A R SIDERS: Is fair share based on how much risk you're facing? Is it based on your ability to pay? This is ethics. This is personal values. This is - right? - what we all think about what is fair.

SOMMER: In East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, they hope to have the levee built in a decade. As for hundreds of other projects around the country, the federal government says there could be more funding available in next year's budget. Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "WILD WERE THE WAVES (AUTOMATION REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.