California Officials Urged to Move Faster on Sea-Level Rise

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – While the damaging side-effects of climate change have been exposed in California over recent years in the form of drought and deadly wildfires, another threat is looming off its shores.

During very low tide in February 2017, large boulders are installed at Goleta Beach to armor the shore against further erosion. (Photo by Daniel Hoover, U.S. Geological Survey)

With 840 miles of coastline, California is alarmingly susceptible to sea-level rise – and state scientists warn the ocean could rise up to 7 feet over the next century. If the experts’ predications are anywhere near accurate, the encroaching Pacific Ocean would have dire economic consequences for cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego and force hundreds of thousands of people to flee the coast.

For decades, California’s main approach to slowing climate change has been to reduce greenhouse emissions. But a new state report issued Tuesday urges lawmakers to be proactive and help local governments prepare for inevitable sea-level rise.

“Given the significant natural resources, public infrastructure, housing and commerce located along California’s 840 miles of coastline, the certainty of rising seas poses a serious and costly threat,” the Legislative Analyst Office report states. “As such, in the coming years the state will need to broaden its focus from efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change to also undertake initiatives centered on how communities can adapt to the approaching impacts.”

The report by the nonpartisan office highlights the difficulties California is having and will continue to have in making itself more resilient to climate change.

A glaring hurdle is that most of California’s coastal real estate is privately owned or held by local governments, making a top-down approach difficult.

Most of the current planning is being done at the local level and the report says many coastal communities have yet to even begin on projects. Furthermore, local leaders struggle with costs of preparing sea-level rise projects, let alone implementing them.

“The progress of sea-level rise preparation across the state’s coastal communities has been slow,” the 43-page report states. “Coastal communities must increase both the extent and pace of sea-level rise preparation efforts if California is to avoid the most severe, costly and disruptive impacts in the coming decades.”

Aside from financial challenges, many local governments are unsure where to turn for data and help in crafting plans best fit for their regions. There is also a lack of communication and cross-jurisdictional collaboration, the report says.

In order to spur action, the report recommends lawmakers and state agencies create a series of regional climate adaption groups to aid local leaders. It also suggests forming an agency that would give information and technical support, as well as a new public awareness campaign about the threats of sea-level rise.

Sea-level rise is already happening and bringing higher tides across the Golden State. Over the last century, San Francisco’s sea level has risen 8 inches. The California Ocean Protection Council says levels could rise in some places up to 2 feet by 2050, and 10 feet under extreme circumstances by 2100.

The predicted rise will make cities more susceptible to floods during even minor storms and erode billions of dollars’ worth of famous coastline. Rising tides would threaten airports, railroads, ports and tourism, along with entire neighborhoods.

The entire economic impact of sea-level rise is of course tough to pinpoint, but a report by the Risky Business Project warns that between $8 and $10 billion of California property will be underwater by 2050.

As for its efforts, the state has issued a “Sea-Level Rise Guidance Document” for local governments and several state agencies including the California Coastal Commission, Ocean Protection Council and the State Lands Commission have sea-level rise related responsibilities. But the report says the state hasn’t done enough to fund local projects and has dedicated only $67 million since 2014 for coastal adaption planning efforts. It also says that lawmakers should mandate that potential sea-level rise effects be disclosed during real estate sales as the law requires for earthquake, flood and wildfire risks.

Potential strategies for hardening infrastructure mentioned in the report include barriers and seawalls, elevating structures and abandoning risky areas.

According to the report, the San Francisco Bay Area has done the best job of planning and implementing sea-level rise protections. In 2016, voters in the nine-county region passed a parcel tax that will fund wetland restorations and stop erosion, while Marin and San Mateo counties have collaborated on vulnerability reports and action plans.

The office interviewed over 100 people for the report, including researchers, state officials, local leaders and community groups. It also builds on a variety of past studies on sea-level rise and climate change.

California can certainly help guide and fund sea-level rise plans, but the report says ultimately it will be up to local leaders to make their cities more flexible to climate change.

“The state has neither the capacity nor the authority to assume primary responsibility for planning, developing policies, or implementing response activities across California’s many coastal communities.”

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