Network Member of the Month: Jack Liebster

“I’ve said a number of times that dealing with sea level rise is like dealing with grief, there are five stages of response: the first is denial – it’s not going to happen. You have to go through all those stages ‘til you get to the end of acceptance and ‘let’s do something about it’ and figure out what’s most appropriate to do.”

– Jack Liebster, Advance Planning Manager for the County of Marin

An interview with the Member of the Month:

How did you get interested in coastal protection and resilience planning?
I’ll start in college. I was in the founding class of the environmental studies program at UC Santa Cruz in 1970, and I’ve had tremendous luck in being able to stay with environmental concerns throughout my career. I worked for the youth advisory board at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington D.C. I worked for the California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. I’ve done studies up at Lake Tahoe on growth there. I started with California Coastal Commission, where I worked for 25 years, initially doing permits and planning, but for the last 14 years or so I was the Public Affairs director. I had the great opportunity to start the Coastal Cleanup Day and the Adopt-A-Beach program, and the Whale Tail License Plate, which I just checked… its raised 93 million dollars to date for environmental restoration and education programs, so that’s very gratifying.

Then I worked with the Coastal Conservancy for a number of years, primarily dealing with projects in Southern California, including the restoration of Ballona Wetlands. I was also the planning director for the city of Half Moon Bay and then I came to [Marin] county where I’ve been for 10 years.

What is Marin County doing in terms of coastal resilience?
Right now, coastal adaptation is a large part of what we are working in – a great percentage of it. In fact, our former county supervisor Steve Kinsey, who is also a Coastal Commission Chairman said that, “Climate change planning is comprehensive planning as we go into the future”, and we’re finding that to be very much true.

We have two programs going now: one on the coast side here, which is called C-SMART for Collaboration Sea Level Rise Marin Adaptation Team; and on the bay side we have a Bay Wave Program. We started a little earlier here on the coast side because we were able to get some of the very first grants that were provided to local government for doing this kind of work. And, in both cases now, we’ve completed vulnerability assessments that indicate where the areas are that will potentially be inundated. And what kinds of, what we call assets or uses (everything from parks to homes, businesses, roads, utilities, wetlands, other habitats), all those kind of resources and how they would be affected as sea level rises at various stages throughout the future. On the coast side we’ve delved into what we can do to adapt to sea level rise, what the options are. We still have a very long way to go in both those areas, because the problems are complex and the solutions are not obvious. We’re particularly hoping to adapt using nature-based solutions, which don’t have a long track record, and are not necessarily easily adopted by the establishment, so that’s a bit of an uphill climb also.

Why do you think it’s important to do this work?
Well, if we don’t do anything, then existing homes, businesses, roads, and other infrastructure are going to be subject to attack by higher levels of water, and more intense storms and waves that are starting now from a higher position,   so that, obviously, could be devastating. Wetlands could be drowned, beaches could be drowned and covered with water. So a place like Stinson Beach, which is really a recreational resource for the entire bay area (millions of people visit this area for the beach and for the surf and for the sun), that might not be available down the line. This is very long-range planning, much more long-range than what city planning and urban planning generally does. [Normally] you do a plan for 20 years, but here we’re looking out 100 years. We have to begin now to be able to address those issues as they come up, and keep up with them as sea level changes.

What has been the greatest challenge in adaptation planning for Marin County?
Getting people to act now for something that’s far off in the future is a big part of the challenge, and a big part of the answer is that we try to paint those pictures of what’s coming. It’s really a matter of education and involvement. I’ve said a number of times that dealing with sea level rise is like dealing with grief, there are five stages of response: the first is denial; it’s not going to happen. You have to go through all those stages until you get to the end of acceptance and to let’s do something about it, and figure out what’s most appropriate to do.

There are a couple of [other] different kinds of challenges that we face. One, obviously always is the resources to do the planning, to do the evaluation. We’re not geophysicists. We’re not people who are hydrologists who have that kind of skill to bring to the question. And, in fact, it requires a lot of different skills like that put together. That’s our role, is to be able to put them together, but that costs money. And developing solutions, especially when we’re talking about nature-based solutions that costs money. And evaluating and comparing them -that costs money too. And none of this is a little bit of money, it takes a lot of effort to do that.

Thankfully, there have been various grants that have been available, but you’re always competing for a grant with a particular interest or focus. I’m hoping that the state will recognize that there are sort of categorical things that need to be funded and will provide that. The other kind of challenge is just the jurisdictional and governmental collaboration that we have to deal with. We’ve had tremendous cooperation from a number of different agencies. We’re have worked together in an integrated way to deal with natural habitats.  What we really need is a realistic approach that looks at what needs to be done, that’s cooperative, that listens and that has a certain amount of compassion with what people are facing. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case in some agencies. And that takes up a lot of time and really slows the process down.

What has Marin County done to engage the community on this issue?
Community engagement has been one of our very strong points. It’s a priority because, as I said, education, and having people understand what is coming down the line at them, is the preeminent objective that we have. And i has worked extremely well. We have put a lot of effort into it. We’ve had numerous community workshops, we’ve met with people individually, we’ve been in people’s living rooms talking to small groups.

In our workshops, we’ve played the Game of Floods, which is a game that we put together to help people understand what these issues are and how they interact. It’s a hypothetical island that has sea level rise shown in different colors around the island. And has different environments, a downtown, a low-income neighborhood next to the waste water treatment plant, an exclusive set of homes, agricultural lands, and wetlands. People, as part of the game, need to figure out what they’re going to do to adapt to the sea level rise. It really gets people engaged in thinking about the trade-offs that exist in making those kinds of choices and it really energizes them to participate. That’s been a very, very effective tool that we’ve had. By having the advantage of having relatively small communities, less than 10,000 people in an area, we’ve been able to do what I call eyeball-to-eyeball planning. It’s very intimate and very responsive to people, and people take that into account and do appreciate and participate with us in the process.

Why are you a part of the California Coastal Resilience Network?
One of the reasons we are strong supporters of the California Coastal Resilience Network is that these problems are so complex that we can’t solve them alone. We hope that through a kind of a division of labor, where different groups take on different issues, that we can come back together and share that information and share what we’ve learned and move ourselves ahead much more rapidly than we could otherwise. I have an old saying that was, “Don’t vagarize, plagiarize.” So, especially when it comes to government, it’s important to share information and there’s nothing wrong with taking work that someone else has done and applying it to your area. That’s what the network can do for us, and we have high hopes for that being a continuing source of support throughout the coming years.

Why did you sign up for the Network’s Steering Committee?
Well the reason I volunteered to come onto the Steering Committee is to push that notion of cooperation and collaboration throughout the network, and to make a commitment of my own energy to help make that happen for everyone who’s involved. So, I take that responsibility on, as I hope other members do as well, andI think the results will be something that we can proud of.