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Episode #6

November 2020

Hi, everybody. Thanks for being here and welcome to Ocean Solutions. a NOISE Lab podcast. I'm dr. Morgan Reed Raven, biogeochemist and a professor at the university of California, Santa Barbara. In this podcast, we're talking with inspirational individuals who are working on some of the largest issues of our time. At the intersection of climate, ocean conservation and human wellbeing.

In previous episodes, we've talked with activists and researchers who lobby governments or who create models that governments can use to make decisions. But today we get to talk to the other side. Government officials with the jurisdiction and mandate to actually implement large scale adaptation and mitigation policies.

Local governments in particular are really at the front lines of connecting communities with solutions to in our case sea level rise. Which is already observable across the world and is a critical issue for billions of people. The good news is that there are people like Heather, Dennis advanced planner with the County of Marin in Northern California.

Who are working on this actively creatively and with both the needs of the community and the best available science in mind. So what's the plan. Let's find out.   

good morning, Heather. Thanks so much for being here.

Heather Dennis: [00:01:48] Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Morgan: [00:01:50] I am really interested in hearing your perspective on a lot of the conservation issues that we've been talking about over the last couple of episodes,  because you have a government perspective, which is this really critical part of actually getting things done, in climate mitigation and ocean conservation.

 so specifically what big central issue motivates your work?

Heather Dennis: [00:02:13] Yeah. So I am focused on how we create a resilient future in the face of climate change and uncertainty. And specifically I work in sea level rise on the coast of California.

Morgan: [00:02:24] Got it. And so sea level rise in general, right? It's happening because we're melting the ice at the poles. , what does that going to do here in California?

Heather Dennis: [00:02:34] Yeah, so it's actually happening because of melting sea ice. And. The ocean gets bigger when it gets warmer and the ocean is getting warmer. that's the reason that it's happening, that not a lot of people think about or know about. but it's, it's happening for multiple reasons.

 there's a large variety of impacts that we expect to see from sea level rise and they vary across the globe, based on what the coastal looks like. And, You know, all sorts of other factors, what the elevation of the coast is, what it was like before, whether there was a glacier, there all sorts of reasons that it varies.

But specifically here in California, some of the impacts we expect to see are more frequent and more severe flood events, both permanent. Inundation. So, the water permanently covers this new area that previously wasn't covered in water and, temporary inundation. So that's like storm events are more frequent and the water comes up higher with those storm events, but then it,  retreats.

we also expect to see increased erosion as a consequence of those more frequent storm events and increased wave action that happens when there's just more water in the ocean. We also could see things like groundwater infiltration. So a lot of the aquifers are relatively shallow and as the sea level rises, you know, when you dig a hole at the beach and when you're little and you find ocean water in the bottom of that hole, that's kind of the idea is  there's water down there  most places on the coast. and that water will rise as sea level rises as well. So it could infiltrate things like soils, if there's agriculture on the coast or, drinking water or all sorts of things, it also could just result in flooding from below. So we hear about that a lot in places like Miami, where the water.

It doesn't necessarily infiltrate your drink water or your soil, but it just flat it's sunny day flooding. It just floods from the ground up because the groundwater gets so high. .

Morgan: [00:04:29] Like it just seeps out of the ground and it's salt

Heather Dennis: [00:04:32] Yeah. Yeah.  other things, so things like habitat loss. So obviously if there's like a wetland or beach on the ocean and the water comes up, that's going to be lost unless we do things like restoration, which there are options here.

and then of course, loss of critical infrastructure, like homes that are on the coast or anything that's on the coast, like post offices, businesses, parks.  all sorts of critical infrastructure could also.

Be impacted from sea level rise. But I do like to say that there are actually some opportunities with this as well. So as the sea level, as the coast, basically like moves inland, there could be opportunities for things like restoration of wetlands or, or other coastal ecosystems that need that title action.

Morgan: [00:05:16] So maybe places where human activity has already destroyed where the wetlands used to be.

Heather Dennis: [00:05:22] Yep. Exactly.

 

 

Morgan: [00:05:23] it. So we have observed sea level rise already. Right?

Heather Dennis: [00:05:29] Correct. Yeah. Yeah. The sea level is definitely rising  and it has been observed there's tidal gauges. so most of my work is focused in the San Francisco Bay area and along the outer coast  of Marine County.  there's a tidal gauge.  the golden gate title gauge that has records.

It basically measures the level of the tide, on a daily basis. And, and if you look at those records, The ocean has been rising over the past couple decades and centuries. but it's happening at an increased rate now. so that's really what we're concerned about. And the other thing is we're actually able to kind of see what it could look like in the near future based on something called King tides.

So twice a year, we have these extreme astronomical tides that are based on how the moon is oriented with the earth. and basically it just makes. High tide really, really high and low tide really, really low. So the, the gap between the tides is really big and the water goes further out and higher up.

and at least in the Bay area, we've figured out with modeling that a King tide is basically equivalent to what we will see permanently flooded in 12 inches of sea level rise, which we could see by 2030. So that's 10 years Yeah.

Morgan: [00:06:42] That seems enormous.

Heather Dennis: [00:06:44] I mean,  sea level rise, projections, I will say,  they come in all sorts of ranges. So there's ranges based on if we stop emitting any carbon dioxide right now, which.

Morgan: [00:06:54] Probably unlikely.

Heather Dennis: [00:06:56] Is unlikely and, and basically in the state of California  they give you things based on the different projections of carbon dioxide emissions.

Like  you have like an eight foot range of what could be sea level rise based on the models, based on whether it's high emissions or low emissions or an extreme scenario, but 12 inches could be seen under some scenarios by 2030.

So we need to prepare for it.  Yeah.

Morgan: [00:07:21] And you're also talking about really big numbers in longer timeframes, like many feet.

Heather Dennis: [00:07:28] Yeah. the most recent California state guidance that the ocean protection council published in 2018, came up with what they call an H plus plus scenario, which is basically like the entire Antarctic ice sheet melts. so everybody cross your fingers that we never see this, but it, it does estimate about 10 feet

Morgan: [00:07:47] Oh, my gosh.

Heather Dennis: [00:07:48] 2100.

Right. So that's really big.

Morgan: [00:07:52] Okay. So we have a really big issue in front of us.

Heather Dennis: [00:07:56] Yeah. There's a lot of people working on it. So, you know, don't like having an existential crisis right now, but, yeah,

there's going to be some water.

 

 

Morgan: [00:08:05] Well to maybe make this a little more emotionally manageable. Let's zoom into where you work in Marin County. Can you just set the stage a little bit for what is Marin County? What is it like physically? Is it mountainous? Is it wealthy? Is it poor? Is it urban? Is it rural? What is it like?

Heather Dennis: [00:08:21] It is all of those things

Morgan: [00:08:23] Okay.

Heather Dennis: [00:08:24] yeah. So Marin County, if people are not familiar with it is in Northern California, it's directly across from the golden gate bridge. So when you're driving up one Oh one on the golden gate and you are leaving San Francisco, the second you hit. Earth on the other side of the golden gate, opening is Marin County.

It is literally all of those things you just said. So Marin County is kind of known for having vast open spaces. There's the golden gate national recreation area  stinson beach is a state park there's mere woods national monument. So there's all sorts of protected space there. And most of the Western part of the County is relatively open space and natural. And that's where I'm actually focused in for sea level rise. Planning is on  the West coast.   There are seven unincorporated communities.

So obviously there are homes and there are  roads and highway one is out there and that's  a huge thing in terms of planning for sea level rise across the state.  but the interesting thing about Marin is then you move to the East side of the County.

So the side that faces the San Francisco Bay, and it is. Largely developed. I mean, there, there are wetlands and natural spaces, but that's where the vast majority of the population of the County lives. And that's where all of the incorporated cities and towns are. And it is also threatened by sea level rise.

one particular neighborhood  in the city of San Rafael  the canal neighborhood in San Rafael is thought to be the earliest vulnerable community to sea level rise and the whole nine counties of the Bay area.

And that community is, considered a disadvantaged community. a lot of people that live there they're largely, Hispanic  and  Marin is an incredibly wealthy. County.  but there are these pockets within the County that is kind of a little more affordable in an incredibly wealthy  area.

Morgan: [00:10:14] Everything else. These communities are also the frontline for sea level rise.

Heather Dennis: [00:10:19] Yeah, the front line for a lot of things, including sea level rise, that neighborhood floods   fairly significantly in models between one foot and two foot of sea level rise, which again is very soon. so. In terms of what impacts are more important for different parts of the County?

 it, again, totally varies obviously on the East side there's houses and there's people and there's roads and  there's interstate highways and those are really important and at risk to flooding in the near future. And then on the West side, there's all sorts of natural ecosystems that get crazy visitation from all over the place.

County and the state and the world. and they have critical habitat for endangered species. So it's kind of a crazy County to work in because it's got those two coasts and all sorts of basically every issue you could say.

Morgan: [00:11:06] You've got the whole spectrum. you've mentioned a couple of times models and what they tell you, what is the source of information that you use at the County to make these projections? How do you know what's coming at us?

Heather Dennis: [00:11:20] So there's a wide variety of, sea level rise models that really model savvy people make. I'm not one of them, but I do understand them and I use them. and what's interesting about the Bay area is, we generally. Use a model that the United States geological survey created, called the cosmos model.

It is widely used across the coast of California.

 generally we don't, tie things to years, so they tie things to levels of water.  things like 12 inches, 24 inches, 36 inches, whatever of sea level rise.

And that's because the projections for years change as sciences updated or in how many, how much carbon dioxide we put into that, my spirit changes

Morgan: [00:12:04] got it. And so then we learn how glaciers are actually moving and melting. We can easily update these models with that new information.

Heather Dennis: [00:12:11] yeah. And the models are really cool because they don't just tell us about,  the inland extent of the water at various levels of sea level rise. Although they do tell us that, and that is obviously incredibly useful for planning, but they also tell us things like wave action, and erosion, and, All of the other impacts of sea level rise that I talked about earlier, groundwater infiltration.

 that's generally not included in these  broad models that people use, but kind of a cool, like cutting edge science thing. That's happening in sea level rise. .

 

 

Morgan: [00:12:39] Very cool. So with all of these challenges, where do we even start? What kind of possible solutions exist to this problem?

Heather Dennis: [00:12:49] Great question. And that is why I do what I do.

Morgan: [00:12:52] Thank you.

Heather Dennis: [00:12:53] yeah. Um, yeah, so. There are solutions. And that is really how I landed in this world is that I needed to find a way to optimistically  like proactively face climate change and think about what we can do and then be a part in making it happen. So in terms of sea level rise, there's really a wide variety of.

Solutions that are obviously location specific and dependent on all sorts of inputs in terms of, you know, what the ecosystem is and what, what exactly the impacts from sea level rise will be. And you know, what the substrate, what the ground is like, whether it's sand, whether it's concrete. but there's a huge variety of solutions from what we call green to gray or hard to natural solution.

 I think what people think of most when they think of coastal flooding or at least they used to, I think at least in my world at shifting, is build a seawall that'll stop, that'll stop the water.

Morgan: [00:13:51] That'll stop the ocean.

Heather Dennis: [00:13:53] and not every sea level rise planner would say this.

 but I believe that there is a time and place for, for building a sea wall. but there's this other really cool. Option of more natural or nature based solutions that think should be employed wherever possible for as long as possible before we pivot to, to things like seawalls and things like that.

so what I mean by natural nature based solutions is basically using. Nature to our advantage    a dune system on a beach can help protect whatever's behind the dune system from increased wave events and sea level rise and flooding.

other solutions that are nature-based are things like wetlands. so that when a wave comes, that's going to slow it down.

And that's exactly what a wetland does. but we have to make sure that our wetlands persist because wetlands are obviously as the water rises, then it's not going to stop any waves. So that's a big focus in, Sea level rise adaptation in California and actually States like Maryland on the East coast are pretty far ahead of us in terms of nature-based solutions.

we look to them a lot.  in places like the Bay where they dredge the Bay for shipping lanes, there's all this extra sediment.

Some of it's toxic. Some of it's not, if it's not toxic, you can reuse that sediment. So instead of it just being dumped somewhere  you can take that sediment. That's. Being dug out of shipping lanes and spray it over wetlands, very thinly at a very scientifically informed process  too.

Basically raise the elevation of that wetland and make sure that it persists as water rises and continues to protect whatever's behind it. other nature-based solutions are things like oyster reefs, so there's, there's a variety of solutions, from just a seawall to all of these newer approaches that, that are really being prioritized in the state of California.

 

Morgan: [00:15:47] got it. Are these nature-based solutions also on the table for a place like San Rafael or is that a completely different approach?

Heather Dennis: [00:15:55] they are on the table in some places. So the reality of sea level rise is it's going to be a mix. and it's even going to be a mix in one location. So. for instance, in San Rafael,  the canal neighborhood actually has a canal and that's,  part of why it is so vulnerable to sea level rise is it's not just on the Bay.

There's like the Bay I'm using my hands, but this is a podcast.

Morgan: [00:16:18] I never talk with my hands on the podcast.

 Heather Dennis: [00:16:21] basically at a right angle with the Bay and the canal. So  there's water on two sides of the canal neighborhood, The canal is already hardened. so likely a lot of solutions, there might be things like reinforcing that bulkhead or that seawall or whatever's there.  but at the corner of the right angle where the Bay meets the canal, there is a wetland. So, so wetland restoration can be done and is being done for, in

part of that neighborhood to protect from one angle of flooding to a certain date. So that's the other thing is, these natural and nature based solutions or any solution likely has a lifespan in terms of, how long it can protect? So. Things like wetland restoration they likely cannot protect a neighborhood or  whatever's behind it to like, 70 inches of sea level rise.

, they're more like medium term solutions. And then we have to start thinking about alternative long-term solutions.

Morgan: [00:17:25] So eventually  going to be underwater.

Heather Dennis: [00:17:30] hopefully not.

Um, yeah. Hopefully not it, it we're working on it.

Morgan: [00:17:39] Okay.

Heather Dennis: [00:17:40] Um,

Morgan: [00:17:41] okay. That's great. Let's talk about the outer coasts though. Cause this are, you've been focusing on in your project mostly. Right?

Heather Dennis: [00:17:49] Yeah,

 

Morgan: [00:17:50] What does that project and what are you guys trying to do?

Heather Dennis: [00:17:52] I worked for the Marin County community development agency, which is just a department within the County of Marin. and I am an advanced planner, a long range planner. and I. And focused on sea level rise on the West coast of Marin, but  we've been doing that long before I started working for the County.

So we published a vulnerability assessment where we basically looked at what was going to get what and when, and what infrastructure and ecosystems and roads and all of that were vulnerable at varying levels of sea level rise that came out in 2016 and then in 2018. We took that information and came out with an adaptation report,  for the seven communities in West Marin Stinson beach being one of them, , all of these are unincorporated, which is why we as the County plan for them.

Otherwise, if they were incorporated, the cities would plan for them.

Yeah. so we, for each of the seven communities in Westman,  the adaptation report basically. made a big, long list of potential adaptation solutions to address the vulnerabilities that were identified in the vulnerability assessment.

but it didn't tie them to specific times or like phased of when they should happen or really how they could happen or really like cost benefit and feasibility of those solutions.  So what I am now doing with the project that I'm doing in Stinson beach, which is called the Stinson arc adaptation and resilience, collaboration is taking all of that information and trying to package it into something that can actually lead us towards. Doing things and like picturing a resilient future and how it can happen actually with these solutions.  a lot of it is just like taking these solutions and putting them into place and time based specific. Pathways. So adaptation pathways is what it's called, like this, this planning methodology, and it's, it's the new hot thing in sea level rise, adaptation planning.

And I think maybe climate adaptation planning in general, where basically we say like, okay, this intersection or something is vulnerable. Now, but obviously it floods more and more as, as time goes on, but we don't need to say like, everybody moved now.

Like that's a term solution. Maybe, maybe it's not even, maybe it's not necessary. so instead we come up with these pathways where, we have a near term solution, a medium term solution and a long-term solution. We might not always have all three, but we might, and the near term solution might be something like.

Let's put sandbags here and that will work for a long time and it's cheap and it's easy and it's achievable and you don't have to go get a million permits to do it. and you can do it right away.  but then you say, okay, I need to set some thresholds and triggers for when I move to the next solution, whether it's the medium or long-term solution.

 all of my work is very community focused and  basically the community guides the process and whatever they say, like, once it floods 10 times, we're not okay with it. We need to move to something else that will make it not flood 10 times in a year.

And maybe that's something else is like, you know, if we put a dune on this beach, that's right near this intersection, then the water won't come, but it takes longer to  do the permitting and feasibility and construct a dune and really have it established. So that's why it's beneficial to have this near term solution while you're working on this medium term solution.

That, you know, when you'll move to, but then again, nature based solutions have a lifespan that probably isn't to like max, like, you know, that 10 foot, sea level rise we were talking about. So then there's a long-term solution as well, which, long-term solutions are a little harder to think about. the main one that jumps into people's heads when it comes to the coast of California is managed retreat, which is like a little bit of.

A taboo now it's not a taboo.  it's a challenging subject to raise with people because

Morgan: [00:21:43] It's a scary idea.

Heather Dennis: [00:21:44] it's a super scary idea. And these people have lived in this community for God knows how long and  it's their home. And so talking to them about moving their home.

So that it can be reclaimed by the ocean is obviously a big, scary subject, that we are just beginning to breach with the sense in beach community with this project. But with the idea that  it's down the line, there's other solutions before we,

Morgan: [00:22:11] Well, and just to be transparent about, we can get you maybe 10 years with sandbags and maybe 30 years with a wetland. And do we want to make that investment? And also you can see this on the horizon now, as you can worry about your housing prices or where you want to live and all of those kinds of choices.

Heather Dennis: [00:22:30] yeah, yeah. With this project is really a community driven project that really gets the community members thinking about and supporting and buying into the reality of the future and thinking proactively about solutions that could happen.

And then we will evaluate the feasibility of those ideas, whether they're actually possible how much they'll cost, things like that.

 

 

Morgan: [00:22:52] So working with the community like this is that how you identify  even which of the topics really need to be addressed and how to balance them? Like we've, we've heard about housing that actually needs to be moved. We've heard about public lands that are natural resources, assets, maybe even tourism assets.

It seems like balancing those things could be really challenging.

Heather Dennis: [00:23:11] It is definitely very challenging.  we have representatives from all of those groups and interests on all of our working groups. Stinson beach is a relatively affluent community with Homeowner associations and things like that, that we have representatives on all of our working groups, but then we also have people from the national parks because again, Stinson beach is a national park. and yes, they obviously have some conflicting interests, but honestly they also have a lot of similar interests because the homeowners know that if we protect. The beach, we will in turn be protecting their homes likely.

or there are ways to get there.

 

Morgan: [00:23:49] You guys  collaborate with you've mentioned consultants, other government agencies, local homeowners associations, where in this is the County government's role.  

Heather Dennis: [00:24:01] we collaborate with everyone, as you mentioned. And I think that our, we're kind of the compass. We were definitely in a guidance and project management role on almost all of our projects, which means we collaborate with everyone  from.

Consultants that we hired to help us do the work to community members, to,  other state and regional and local agencies who are doing similar things. so that we don't reinvent the wheel. That's like a big thing in the state of California is really trying to not reinvent wheels because everybody is kind of scrambling to get at this right now.

And, There's a really good opportunity for knowledge sharing. And it's really easy to forget to do that.

Morgan: [00:24:40] Certainly a lot of these issues are going to happen. Every County on the coast is going to be dealing with these same issues.

Heather Dennis: [00:24:46] And there's a lot of counties that have really similar, geographies and topographies on the coast. we talk a lot with the city of Santa Cruz. Who's ahead of us on doing these adaptation pathways for the city of Santa Cruz, and they're doing it really well. And it's really cool. And we want to learn from how they're doing it so yeah,  we, our guiders and project managers and facilitators  but then we also do some of the science work, so we're kind of everything.

Morgan: [00:25:12] Got it. So who all works in your office? Are there,  as you mentioned scientists,  other types of backgrounds all working together, or are you in sort of separate agencies?

Heather Dennis: [00:25:21] we're in separate agencies at the County.  I switched to this job at the County level about a year ago, from a state agency  the Bay conservation development commission, who I was talking about earlier, the regulatory agency for the Bay.

The County is really interesting because it's all separate departments. So I'm in the community development agency.  my team is technically five people, but there's really three of us or maybe four of us that work on sea level rise.. and we are all planners. I mean, I have a master's of environmental science and management, so I do have a fairly significant science background. And I, I have like the technical background to do some of the modeling. some other people on my team have similar backgrounds.

Others are like urban planners. You know, they went to school for urban planning and kind of found their way to this.  sea level rise, specific climate change, specific world. and then, yeah, like the lawyers and everything are, are separate. And at the County level, but at my former agency, you know, we had all of that. We had lawyers, we had scientists, we had, planners, we had  research analysts. We had. Regulatory people that actually like gave the permits. so yeah,  I think it even varies like our County is different from the next County.

Morgan: [00:26:35] Sure. What is it like to work at the County level? ? How does it compare to other alternative structure as an industry or in research ?

 

Heather Dennis: [00:26:43] I switched to local government,   from a state agency that had regional authority because I wanted to be more on the ground with the people in the issues. And, feel like the work I was doing was leading to something which.

 is not to say that state work does not lead to something, but it is definitely, that work was much more strategic and like creating guidance documents for local governments to use and things like that. And it was really interesting work, but I really felt like I needed to be closer to the action and really working with the community members in a specific place to try and answer these questions.

so that something would happen. With those answers. and that definitely is what it feels like in Marin. I mean, still the nature of sea level rise and climate change planning is the solutions are not going to happen for a while because we have to go through these planning processes to get to the solutions.

And then you have to go through the permitting processes to get the solutions on the ground. So that, I mean, it didn't like totally. Solve my existential crises with like wanting action. But, but in Marin, it, it definitely is more on the ground. And I think that's probably true for local governments throughout,

Morgan: [00:27:56] Just working in a small group like that. you have this project in your hands.

Heather Dennis: [00:28:00] Yeah.

Yeah. And like I do work with the community members and they do know me and, you know, they do call me up on whatever day and be like, Hey, let's talk about this. so, so that's, it's different, right? Like at the state level it was strategic and some people really love that at local level.

It's a little more like on the ground. I have worked for research. Think tanks and things like that.  the state level government felt a little bit more like academic research that you're creating these research studies and documents and strategies that then you're putting out into the world and hoping somebody uses,

yeah.

 

Morgan: [00:28:38] What does a typical day like ?

Heather Dennis: [00:28:40] it was a typical day. Like, my days are currently mostly applying for grants,

Morgan: [00:28:48] Oh, so you're just like academia then? Yes.

Heather Dennis: [00:28:51] Which is not my favorite part of my job. as you could imagine, but it is, it is neat because, you know, someday we'll actually do the project.

Morgan: [00:29:01] So grants from, from who, who pays for this?

Heather Dennis: [00:29:04] That's a great question. most of the work is grant funded. I mean like my staff hours are paid for by the County of Marin and a lot of. You know, matching time is paid for by the County, but the large work that needs to be done by consultants, we need to find grants to do most of those grants come from other government agencies.

So, we are currently working on a couple of grants on natural industry nature-based solutions, feasibility of those, on the West coast of Marin. That are funded by the state coastal Conservancy, which is one of those coastal zone management agencies . And they actually are huge funder in the state of California.

They basically funnel money from like state bonds and propositions and give it out. So a lot of money comes from the coastal Conservancy. I applied for a grant from the national oceanic and atmospheric administration. The other week, I'm applying for a grant from the ocean protection council right now. Everybody has grants that they give out. and then everybody applies for them and crosses our fingers that we get them.  There are like private foundation grants as well, or like private business. California had a really cool competition called the California resilience challenge. That basically was a bunch of,  high grossing, private companies that were invested in climate change and gave a bunch of money into this lump sum that became this California resilience challenge grant.

Morgan: [00:30:23] I'm a little surprised that the  funding from this work. It's something you have to request or ask for and for in these grant applications, as opposed to being core funding from the state or from the federal government or some other larger agency.

Heather Dennis: [00:30:37] Me too. Yeah. I think that it's gradually starting to change. the agency that I used to work for was all grant funded.   But I hope in the future that this work does become. Just funded by the organization that we work for, because I think that there's, I mean, I spent so much time applying for grants and if I spent all of that time actually doing the work, then maybe we'd have solutions a little bit sooner.

and I'm, I mean, I'm obviously not the only one. So if everybody were able to do that, I think it would not have a small impact on our preparedness for climate change.

 

Morgan: [00:31:17] Yeah, that would make a huge difference. So besides writing grants, what other kinds of activities do you do as part of your day to day? Maybe under more normal circumstances.

Heather Dennis: [00:31:27] Yeah. so  I have a fairly significant technical background. So for the Stinson beach project, we're updating our vulnerability assessment because it was done four years ago. Like the sea level rise projections have changed and some new data on groundwater is available and  just new data is available and we want to make sure that we're using the best science.

To inform our adaptation planning process. So I do a lot of,  modeling of vulnerability in GIS To make sure that our science is up to date as we move forward with talking about what's getting what, when and how, and for how long and all of that stuff. but I also talk to people a lot. as I said, we definitely play a guidance and project management role.

so I spend a lot of time talking to people which I really enjoy. And I think is really important in this work. Obviously we can't just sit in our government building, like making a plan B like, okay, here you go. Here's your plan. we really need to. Have everybody involved. So I, I really enjoy that part of my work of facilitating meetings and making sure that everybody who needs to be involved is involved.

I'm pretty significantly involved in that equity work that the County is doing and the region is doing, To make sure that we're involving everybody who is potentially impacted by these vulnerabilities. so working with community-based organizations and working with regional groups that strive towards equitable planning processes and things like that.

so yeah, it's a giant mixed bag of what I do every day between facilitating meetings, talking to people all the time, all over and like doing some. Modeling.

Morgan: [00:33:06] Yeah. Do you ever get out in the field? Do you get to go up to these beautiful places?

Heather Dennis: [00:33:10] not as often as I wish, but, I could go out whenever I wanted, which is nice. My job is very flexible and that is, I do not take that for granted at all. I think if I called up my boss and was like, I'm going to go to Stinson today, he would be like, yeah, go take pictures. So that's really nice, but a lot of my work is computer based.

obviously, especially now that we're all working from home, we generally had community meetings. Or like some type of working group meeting in the Stinson beach area probably every other month,  that brought us out there to have FaceTime with our working group members. obviously we don't go out, we still do that, but it's over zoom.

So, yeah, I don't get out as much as I would like, but it's okay.

 

 

Morgan: [00:33:57] Cool. Do you have favorite or least favorite part of your job? This can be serious or very lighthearted, whatever you feel.

Heather Dennis: [00:34:06] I think my favorite, yeah, part of my job for sure is that I get to look for these optimistic proactive solutions to climate change. When climate change feels like this big existential crisis with no answers. And I'm not saying that. It doesn't feel like that to me ever, because it definitely does, but it feels good to be doing something.

 I like to say that I'm trying to fix this tiny part of this huge problem, but at least I

like, at least I might have like a small, actual impact.

Morgan: [00:34:37] yeah.

Heather Dennis: [00:34:38] and then I think my least favorite is applying for grants,

Morgan: [00:34:42] yes, begging for money everyone's least favorite activity. we've talked a little bit about your pathway to get here, but could you just  step us through your professional background that landed you on this job?

Heather Dennis: [00:34:53] Yeah. So, I went to the university of California, Los Angeles and, Went in undeclared. and I'm glad I did that because I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was 18 years old. I grew up really outdoorsy. my family was always outside. We actually weren't giant ocean people. But I UCLA, they offer these freshmen clusters that basically let you check off like a million GEs at one time and you're writing requirement, which is great.

and I thought, I didn't want to do science things. I think in a not super uncommon thread, I didn't have great science and math teachers in grade school. And so I thought I didn't like science. So I took a science GE cluster to just get rid of all of my science cheese and be done. it was called the global environment and  it was environmental science, and this geography professor came and.

Presented  how he used GIS to map the world's most endangered for us. but also like got to do field work and the dry forest of Hawaii and like had all these beautiful pictures. And it was super cool that he had like used a computer and maps to figure this out.

And I was like, I want to do that. so I. Majored in geography, having no idea what I could actually do with a geography degree, but, you know, I majored in geography. and, you know, I really loved it, but I finished college and I thought I wanted to be a national park ranger. I moved to Nebraska. I did not want to be a national park ranger.

I moved back and I kind of stumbled into, the aquarium world of all places. and I ended up working at the aquarium of the Pacific in long beach for two years as part of their education program. So I led informal education programs. I did presentations. I led behind the scenes tours.

I worked on whale watch boats, and that was the coolest job I will ever have in my life. I am sure of it. And it really started to open my eyes about how much I loved the ocean and how mysterious it is and how cool it is.

so we went through a lot of training about how to just like walk up to a stranger who was trying to enjoy the recreational day at the aquarium and talk to them about climate change, which is like pretty intimidating. but it was fun and I enjoyed it and you know, some people have, you had really good conversations with them.

And I started thinking like, that job is very important, but I wanted to do a little bit more with climate change, then talk to strangers in an aquarium. so I started looking at schools. I went back, I ended up going back to get a master's of environmental science and management at the Bren school at UCSB.

at Bren you specialize. So I double specialized in coastal resource management and. Conservation planning. and started getting really interested in kind of what happens at the land sea interface.

So where the ocean meets the coast, through my master's project, which.  basically outside organizations submit proposals to the school for projects that they need done and they want free labor to do it. That's not entirely well. It's pretty true.

Um, it's not false. and I ended up doing one. The client was the Morro Bay national estuary program.

And it was basically to create a conservation plan for the Morro Bay watershed. And it, it kind of spurred a continuation of that sort of work for my professional career. I took a tiny bit of a detour right after grad school and worked in academic research of global fisheries and climate change, which was interesting, but not at all related to anything I did before or have since done.

and then I, I ended up doing this fellowship called the California state sea grant fellowship. That is designed for people who have graduated within the last year with their master's or PhD and want experience working at kind of the interface of policy and science in state agencies across the state of California.

So that landed me at the coastal Conservancy, who I spoke about earlier. they're the organization that basically funnels proposition and bond money to people to do cool work. . I was working in wetland restoration in Southern California.

and it was the first time I worked in sea level rise. So I kind of accidentally ended up in the sea level rise world. but it was the first time that I was like, Oh, We can think optimistically and proactively about climate change, because we were working,  in this part of wetlands restoration, where basically we remodeling.

Undeveloped open space around existing wetlands and then where the wetlands would be tightly active with varying levels of climate change and restoration opportunities. And basically we figured out that wetlands in Southern California had been severely decimated over the years with development

but we know  what the extent used to be in Anchorage. and we figured out that we could get close to back to the historic acreage  through wetlands restoration opportunities from sea level rise. If we were able to acquire like all of the land. So it's unlikely that that's possible, but it was a really cool like eyeopening experience that there are, there are opportunities with this existential threat as well.

Morgan: [00:39:58] so that land exists. And theoretically, if it became in that title zone, that was happy for wetland processes, it could be turned into a functioning wetland.

Heather Dennis: [00:40:07] Yeah.  Theoretically, I mean, some of it is we, we basically mapped like undeveloped land, which included like parks and tennis courts and like, things like that. So it would require lots of land acquisition from like city parks and all sorts of other people.

But. Theoretically. Yes.

 

Morgan: [00:40:26] I love that there are agencies thinking about this as well as just survival of these communities, but also what can we do that would be positive or proactive, trying to find silver linings to these situations.

Heather Dennis: [00:40:37] Yeah, totally, totally. so yeah, that was a really cool job, but it was only a year long because it was a fellowship. So from there, that's when I jumped over, literally across the Bay, I was in Oakland and then I went to San Francisco to work for the, the Bay conservation and development commission. managing sea level rise, adaptation planning projects  and got a lot of collaboration experience and project management experience and facilitation, you know, like all of the things, BCDC was a really incredible. Kind of first real job. cause I had,  I had had other jobs, but this was the first one where I was like salaried and all of that, all of that stuff.

And, and like, didn't have an end date because it wasn't like a fellowship. so that was a really cool opportunity, but then I wanted to get more on the ground experience. So I landed at the County of Marin. and that's, that's how I got here. Yeah.

Morgan: [00:41:29] That is a great example of a winding and creative path that lands you in a fun place.

Heather Dennis: [00:41:36] Yeah. Yeah. So I guess the moral of that story is you don't have to know exactly what you want to do.

 

 

Morgan: [00:41:44] So if someone does know what they want to do, cause they've just listened to this interview and they're super inspired and they would love to work in a government agency and try to implement some of these solutions. What are some advice that you would give to someone starting their career?

Heather Dennis: [00:42:01] I would say dive in. so  the climate adaptation planning field is a huge and growing field.  it's like the hot topic and it's really blowing up, like when I was in graduate school. People talked about it, but only a little bit. And that was only six years ago. So, it's, it's kind of blown up since.

so there's tons of opportunities.  there are a lot of opportunities for kind of, ex like fellowships, like what I did. And you don't have to have a master's degree for all of them.

So there's fellowships like the civic spark fellowship, that places people at state agencies doing climate work, across the state that a lot of people kind of get their start through that. but also, you know, there's. All sorts of internships available. So like our County pretty much always has an intern.

just, basically there's a ton of work and a lot of people that need help doing that work. So if you're interested, don't be intimidated that like, maybe you don't have the exact experience that, Whatever announcement calls for, or you've never taken a climate adaptation course because my experience and I, I do think this is changing in the education system, but I certainly never took like a climate adaptation class.

and I don't think that they existed at any of my schools . so just know that like everybody learned on the job and. Dive right in, and don't be intimidated. And there's tons of opportunities for interns and fellowships and just  email somebody at your city or County and be like, I'm interested in climate change planning.

Like, can I help you?

and they'll probably say yes.

Morgan: [00:43:35] Yeah, well, great. You know, these fellowships exist, right? There are these mechanisms that exist to get people that are maybe just out of school, into these kinds of agencies and possessions. That's very cool. All right. Well, this has been absolutely fascinating. I really appreciate your time this morning.

So thank you so much for being here.

Heather Dennis: [00:43:55] Thanks so much for having me.

 

 

  Thanks for being here today. And thanks as always to Eleanor Durand and to Dust on the Radio for our theme song one way trip to Mars. Next week. We're going to learn about seaweed.

The humble seaweed is in fact, a powerhouse resource for food, animal feed, agriculture, plastics, coastal remediation, the blue economy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There are so many opportunities to discover. So we'll see you next week. 

University of California

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