Marin County battles rising sea level via board game

Marin County's high school student body gain new awareness of the rising sea level issue after playing Game of Floods. (County of Marin)


Staffers at Marin County have come up with a fun and creative way to engage the community in a serious issue.

It is the Game of Floods board game.

The game allows players to “experience” rising sea-level conditions and choose affordable solutions that are acceptable to the community.

Game of Floods has been played with enthusiasm at various community meetings, by Moms of Marin (a group for new moms), and it has been featured at local, state and national conferences. It was especially well-received by the more than 300 students in local high schools who played it, something County Planning Manager Jack Liebster said is important to the county sea-level rise program because “the younger generation and the ones coming after theirs will be most affected by sea-level rise. We were,frankly,amazed. People really got into it. It gives people an ‘aha’ moment. They realize we have to do something here, and need to make some tough choices.

“Sea level rise is a strange thing. It’s hard to get a handle on, and a hard concept for people to grasp. It’s a slow-moving disaster. The good news is it happens over a long period of time, and we can win at it if we plan far ahead enough in advance.”

To begin, a game facilitator describes a dramatic sea rise scenario that could involve roads and hospitals flooding daily, a decreasing water supply, beaches eroding, and flooded agricultural operations. Different colors on the game board represent different levels of rising sea. Players go around the table and pick a restaurant, library, animal habitat, sewage lift station or other community asset to defend and protect. Participants then take turns championing their assets and proposing strategies to protect these sites from sea level rise and storm impacts.

Participants talk and try to reach a consensus to protect critical assets, while keeping the cost, wetland restoration and other living shoreline approaches in mind. Marin County ranks second among nine Bay Area counties for projected risk of impacts from sea level rise flooding and storms, with potential losses of $8.5 billion worth of buildings and contents. Flooding associated with high tides and storms already impacts infrastructure and disrupts people’s lives on a recurring basis.

In Mill Valley, the Manzanita Park and Ride lot, where commuters catch the Golden Gate Transit, frequently floods. Liebster said he has see cars floating there. In Dec. 2014, an eight-foot wave combined with wind and rain from a storm created a surge as the parking lot and entryway to adjacent Miller Avenue were flooded causing a huge traffic jam. Ramps leading to Hwy. 1 and Hwy. 101 in Mill Valley are also subject to flooding.

To address the problem, the County of Marin is now conducting vulnerability assessments, and the next stage will be planning. As a short-term solution, a fill will be built at Miller Avenue.

The flooding is expected to increase in frequency and severity as sea-level rise accelerates, however. Vulnerable communities in San Rafael and Marin City will be disproportionately impacted because flooding will increasingly cut off access to homes, jobs, and daily essentials for many immigrants and low-income residents.

Although many view sea-level rise as something that only affects people living directly on the coast, people living on high ground may have to deal with flooded roads to their communities or inoperative toilets because a wastewater treatment plant is flooded.

The Game of Floods is also intended to be a source for other communities to adapt to their areas, as has San Mateo County and areas in Michigan.

“We are very aware that sea-level rise presents a whole new set of problems for vulnerable areas all around the country,” Liebster said. “We will all need to share and learn from one another, and we hope the Game of Floods gives planners and officials a useful new tool to educate the community about the issue.”

County of Marin staff has also received the American Planning Association California Chapter’s 2016 Public Outreach Award for Excellence for work on the game and plan to accept the award later this year in Southern California.

County staff members credited by American Planning Association’s California Chapter were Liebster, Bridgit Van Belleghem, Alex Westhoff and Lauren Armstrong from CDA, and Department of Public Works (DPW) Engineer Roger Leventhal and Chris Choo from Public Works.

“We’re thrilled about this. We had fun with the creative challenge to get people involved with the tough issues of sea level in a way that is accessible, engaging and thought provoking,” Liebster said.

The game was created by staff members from CDA’s Long-Range Community Planning team and DPW flood control specialists.

It was inspired by a local mapping activity developed for Supervisor Kate Sears’ Southern Marin sea-level rise project by Leventhal and CMG landscape architects.

The game is available for free download on the website under C-SMART.