OLYMPIA, Wash. -- On a gray morning just after dawn, Andy Haub hopped off his bike and walked to where this capital city hits the sea. From the end of a pathway built over the water, he looked out on a marina filled with boats.
The spot is one of Olympia's most popular, drawing hundreds of people on weekends, said Haub, city planning and engineering manager. Residents ride bikes here, shop the nearby farmers market and eat fresh seafood at Budd Bay Cafe. Tourists snap photographs with Washington's Puget Sound as backdrop.
But Haub, as he scanned the horizon, also envisioned a time when there might be a very different scene. Olympia's downtown in several places sits just inches above water, a precarious spot as climate change swells the seas. High tide already brings risk of flooding.
Leaders in this city of 46,000 people are investigating options for protection. They include erecting barricades around parts of Olympia.
"At some point in the future, I think it's inevitable to either erect walls or move out of downtown, given the projections for sea level rise that I've seen," said Haub, who is studying the issue for the city. "We're so close to the water now that it won't take much more water -- much more height of water -- to start flooding downtown."
Scientists warn that climate change is causing oceans to warm and expand, triggering sea level rise. New models estimate seas could climb from 18 inches to well over 50 inches by the turn of the century, a level that would inundate downtown Olympia.
No decisions have been made about walls, with the city for now talking alternatives. Future barriers could range from landscaped sand berms to 6-foot-high concrete or sheet pile walls, Haub said.
None is an easy alternative to consider. Blockades would transform Olympia's harbor, he said, potentially spoiling views that partly define the city.
"The way the boardwalk is structured now, you're very close to the water," Haub said. "To put a wall between the people who use the boardwalk and the water would have an impact. It would change the experience."
Standing at the waterfront, Haub gestured toward a place about 20 feet offshore where scores of sailboats were moored. That could someday be the site of ramparts, he said.
As for the boats docked there, Haub said, "something would change."
There's an even more dramatic alternative some have suggested: At a recent meeting with residents to discuss climate change and sea level rise, a few asked whether building a wall would work if waters rise several feet and whether the option would justify the cost.
Perhaps, some suggested, the city should evaluate whether it might need to abandon the downtown to the forces of nature.
"The question that hasn't been asked is, can we protect downtown, or should we protect downtown, or should we do what they'll do in Bangladesh and retreat?" said Jim Lazar, 59, an economist who has lived three decades in Olympia. "If we're talking 12 to 24 inches [of sea level rise], it's probably feasible. If we're talking 25 to 50 inches, it's probably not."
City leaders say Olympia's vulnerable downtown is worth protecting, with assets that include City Hall, an emergency operations center and a $500 million waste facility.
Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and other officials said they need time to investigate options for insulating the waterfront. But they also know they will need years to gain approval for some of the steps under consideration.
If sea level rise continues, walls or other battlements could be needed in 10 to 15 years, Haub said, a deadline closer than it might sound.
"That's real quick," Haub said. "They're major projects with tremendous community and economic hurdles."
'It's a little Venice'
Charming stores and restaurants with colorful facades line Olympia's downtown, a 3-square-mile section of the 18-square-mile city. There are no chain businesses save banks and one Starbucks. Residents enjoy personal service when they visit independent antique shops, clothing boutiques, theaters and cafes.
When you walk in to Fireside Book Store, Lazar said, "Jane, the owner, helps you find a gift for your mother or your niece."
But, apart from its charm, downtown is a place built on mud.
Located about an hour south of Seattle at the southernmost point of Puget Sound, Olympia was founded in 1850. About 60 years later, the population had grown and wanted more land. When the shallow portion of Budd Inlet was dredged to create a shipping lane, workers filled the slough with the mud that had been excavated.
The shoreline as it exists today is well north of the natural border. High tide in the winter hits about 6 inches below land.
"Downtown is largely built on fill," Haub said. "One hundred years ago, it would have been underwater."
A swath of the downtown lies within 30 feet of the water, and some structures are built directly over parts of Puget Sound. They include the Olympia Yacht Club, a popular grocery store and Olympia Oyster House, the oldest seafood restaurant in the state.
Already there are problems with rising waters. In 2009, the city required that all new commercial buildings start 4 feet above the flood line as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Many agree that sea level rise will worsen the outlook. At that meeting with residents, Haub showed a slide that illustrated what would happen if sea levels climb 50 inches at the same time when high tide would hit a level seen once in 100 years, a kind of worst worst-case scenario. The picture showed water covering most of downtown. Several people in the audience gasped.
"Good grief," said one person in the darkened room. Another offered, "It's a little Venice."
For now, finding ways to shield the water-prone area is a priority, Haub told residents.
"We do intend to protect downtown," he said. "We don't foresee packing up our wagons and heading for higher ground."
Planning for how much sea level rise?
Olympia's City Council in fall 2010 directed its staff to develop suggestions for how the city might prepare for sea level rise. Haub and others ran a computer simulation of how higher tides would affect downtown and which areas would be flooded. They identified initial locations for sea walls and pumps. Those include some of the most popular seaside locations.
There's conflict about which choice is the best for shielding downtown and how quickly Olympia must move. Some argue that earthen berms would suffice to keep out water. Others suggest that even concrete walls like those seen in the Netherlands and Venice, Italy, won't be enough.
Environmental activists say walls would upend ecosystems, threatening sea life. There are questions about how they would be funded. Initial barricades could cost about $8 million, Haub said.
There's also debate over which sea level rise forecast to believe. Planning for 3 to 6 inches of sea level rise -- the most optimistic forecast -- is different from building barricades against 50 inches, Haub said. Olympia leaders have agreed to plan for the high end of that spectrum.
"Downtown is immensely valuable," Haub said. "If you're going to protect it, you have to protect it from what could happen."
For now, the city still is in a fact-gathering stage, said Buxbaum, the mayor. There needs to be clearer information, he said, about how much sea level rise is probable. He also wants to know how much sea walls would cost and how that expense compares with other options.
Then there's the struggle of picking the options residents can accept. "There's a strong consensus we are facing sea level rise," Buxbaum said, but less consensus about how quickly and dramatically it will occur.
"We're working with a broad range of possible futures," the mayor said.
Battles with landowners
Talk about a sea wall so far hasn't reached some of those who would be the most affected. At both Budd Bay Cafe and Olympia Oyster House, restaurant owners hadn't heard anything about the possibility that the city might someday erect sea walls.
Oyster House owner Rich Barrett said, however, that he doesn't see the need for it. In the 16 years that he's been there, he said, high tide has never gotten closer than about 13 to 16 inches from the business.
"It's never gotten any bigger," Barrett said. "I don't see the change." He also said that he didn't "buy into" the idea that climate change could lead to sea level rise.
Tension is brewing already, however, over another step the city is considering to plan for sea level rise.
The Planning Commission has recommended to the City Council that the Shoreline Master Program in some places ban any new building within 50 feet of the water, and in other areas within 100 feet. The City Council later this year will decide whether to accept that suggestion.
Sea level rise is a major motivation for the 50-foot setback, said Roger Horn, a Planning Commission member. That amount of open space would allow room to build a 35-foot sand barricade, he said.
"Because of sea level rise, we may need at some point to put berms along the water," Horn said, adding, "We know it's a major concern of staff. It concerns all of us. Given certain conditions and over a certain amount of time, there could be inundation of low-lying land in that waterfront area."
A tide of litigation?
Property owners in the affected area see the proposed setback as problematic.
Sarah Smyth McIntosh owns a stretch of waterfront land that has been in her family for 80 years. She had planned to develop housing there when the economic recession hit, stalling action. The property in Olympia's West Bay neighborhood now sits mostly vacant.
The proposed 100-foot setback would effectively make McIntosh's land worthless, said Jeanette Dickison, a former City Council member and advocate for Smyth.
"If this is enacted there, for all the property owners of West Bay there will be no development," Dickison said. "Development by development, they'd have to take the regulations to court. Until you get through that legal maze, you wouldn't be able to develop."
A legal battle is a real possibility, said Heather Burgess, an attorney representing the Olympia Yacht Club.
Olympia's Shoreline Master Program doesn't allow the city to ban development on land for the purpose of preserving it to build a future sea wall, she said.
"If they want to come and build a wall around Olympia to protect it against sea level rise, then that is treated like any other right-of-way acquisition," Burgess said. "They have to come in and purchase the property or condemn it and pay for it and build their wall."