Building with nature: Can reviving a marsh save this California town from sea level rise?
In the summer of 2013, a small group of volunteers was busy installing solar panels on an old, derelict home in the tiny town of Lakeport along the coast of Southern California.
For many the project seemed like a typical citizen-led initiative. But the solar panel installation represented a major attempt by the community’s aging leaders to turn a small marsh into a sustainable source of clean renewable energy to power the town’s homes, businesses and schools and to help keep the town’s beaches and the town’s history at bay.
The solar installation’s success, however, would prove to be less straightforward than expected and raise questions about how the town might best meet its sustainability-focused goals – as well as the impact the project’s success would ultimately have on its sea level rise vulnerability.
But first, a little background: The town’s land is very low-lying and close to the sea, and, by most measures, is under-water. The water is not only cold and briny, but also saltier, having been deposited from the sea over the past decades.
In the summer of 2013, the town’s leaders hoped that installing a solar panel array on the home of a retired school official might help the school meet its energy needs – and also help the school and the town meet their sea level rise vulnerability.
“I would think it’s a pretty important aspect to the town’s identity – that it’s a place that is resilient and that can meet its needs,” said Mike Ruhlman, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection’s program on climate resiliency and resilience in the Bay Area. “If you look at the state’s vulnerability to sea level rise, it’s in the range of 12 to 15 inches.”
If it became clear to Ruhlman and his co-directors, Bob and Judy Moore, what impact the project would have on the fragile coastal ecosystem of Lakeport, along with what it would mean for the town’s residents, who would be paying a premium to buy the solar panels, they decided to move on.
“It didn’t really make