California Officials Vow to Collaborate on Sea Level Rise

Pictured in this screenshot of the meeting is moderator Caelan McGee, a senior facilitator of Zephyr Collaboration.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Local and state officials in California vowed Thursday to serve as a united front as they seek state funding to mitigate the anticipated devastating impacts of sea level rise on the Golden State’s coast in the years to come. 

It is a consensus which has been historically stunted by the fight between environmentalists and coastal homeowners for coastal access and state and local government leaders for resources.

The Local Government Working Group, consisting of representatives from the California State Association of Counties, League of California Cities and California Coastal Commission met virtually to discuss their priorities for addressing sea level rise statewide in 2021.

The group’s objectives are memorialized in its joint statement on adaptation planning released this past October. The objectives include flexibility in adaptation planning, incorporating the best available science, phased approaches based on triggers and prioritizing public infrastructure planning, among other goals.

The strategies follow a Legislative Analyst’s Office report in August that said sea level rise could cause $8 to $10 billion in current property to likely be underwater by 2050, with an additional $6 to $10 billion in property at risk during high tides.

But that reality has not snuffed out the fight between wealthy coastal homeowners — whose property is at stake and who want seawalls built to protect it — and environmentalists who argue local and state governments need to consider the controversial policy of “managed retreat” in their adaptation plans for sea level rise.

Managed retreat includes moving properties and the built environment away from the coast.

Imperial Beach Councilman Ed Spriggs said the nature of our democracy makes sea level rise adaptation difficult to enact.

“If we lived in an authoritarian government, it would be easy for state policies to be implemented if it required all cities to move away from the coast in a certain amount of time,” Spriggs said.

“We have another challenge, and that’s we are a democracy with three levels — local, state and federal… This has to be built in, baked into everything we do, a reconciliation of state and local interests,” he added.

Spriggs noted to avoid property rights lawsuits and resistance to sea level adaptation strategies by local governments, public education around coastal issues was necessary to get buy-in across the state and money allocated by the Legislature to address the problem.

Coastal Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh suggested the working group needs to implement an education campaign specifically targeted at homeowners and property owners in the coastal zone, including the latest science on anticipated impacts of sea level rise.

She pointed to measures undertaken by CalFire providing homeowners in high danger fire areas maps of how their properties could be impacted by wildfires as a potential example to emulate.

“It could make a huge difference in dissolving some of the conflict of us versus them,” Aminzadeh said.

Spriggs noted his community of Imperial Beach — the southernmost beach city in the state — is threatened “as a whole” by sea level rise. He said getting people to understand sea level rise and the adaptations necessary to respond to it is a matter of “meeting people where they are in terms of common experiences.”

“Use flooding, El Nino, King Tides as a starting point. Community education can look at it in a practical and experiential way,” Spriggs said.

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