(CN) — As climate change causes sea levels to rise across the world, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to study how that will affect Californians' beach access as high tides push up against seawalls and other structures built to protect inland private property.
“The timing is so critically important,” said commission chair Donne Brownsey said of the plan at the commission's monthly meeting on Wednesday. "We’re going to lose so much of that which we hold so dear in terms of our public beaches, our public waterways, our estuaries, and all the wildlife."
The plan, called the Public Trust Guiding Principles & Action Plan, does not give the commission, which is tasked with protecting the California coastline and ensuring public access to it, any new regulatory powers. Instead, it outlines how the commission can study the effects of rising tides while working with other state and municipal agencies, private businesses, and tribal governments in an equitable way.
But first the plan outlines how the Public Trust Doctrine interacts with the Coastal Act, the 1976 law that defined what the Commission is responsible for.
The Public Trust Doctrine protects tidelands, submerged land, lakes, rivers, and streams, wetlands and the land that connects them as public land for the use and enjoyment by the public for things like fishing, boating, scientific study and even commerce. Those lands are administered by the State Lands Commission. The Coastal Act regulates land use around on and around the coast and ensures public access to the ocean, an area that overlaps with some tidelands and areas surrounding the coast.
As sea levels rise, public trust lands like beaches, dunes and wetlands — and their access points — will move inward and butt up against private land and structures used by those private landholders to protect against erosion, like seawalls and bulkheads. The fear is that once that occurs public trust lands will they be not accessible, but they’ll be inundated with sea water and disappear in a process called “coastal squeeze.”
“As sea levels rise, the potential for public trust lands and their associated upland public spaces to be subject to coastal squeeze against private upland development will only increase, exacerbating existing inequalities in coastal access and tipping the scales further toward injustice, particularly for lower income residents living inland,” a study included with the plan titled “Public Trust Guiding Principles and Action Plan: Carrying out the California Coastal Act and Public Trust Doctrine in an Era of Climate Change and Sea Level Rise,” states.
The plans calls for the commission to study ways to respond to that situation, including the effects of residential development on public trust land, working with the State Lands Commission to create a publicly available map of tidelands and high and low tides, consultation with tribes and public education and outreach. And the commission will look for adaptation and mitigation too.
“Now that we’re in Sacramento, it’s so far inland, you know? We’re landlocked over here, and yet we’re surrounded by the legislators and decision makers who help us protect this public trust," commissioner Linda Escalante said. "The champions should be the legislators on the coast, but what I’ve been trying to change the narrative is that we’re really protecting the public trust for most of the Californians who live inland, but don’t live right up against the sea who don’t have the right away access to this ocean."
Brownsey jumped in. “I’m just going to note that landlocked today, maybe not in the future,” she said.
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