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Urgency, But No Easy Answers, |in Effort to Counter Sea-Level Rise

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (CN) — With the ocean rising eight inches over the past century and the most recent scientific models indicating a rise of 66 more inches by 2100, the California Coastal Commission said Wednesday the time is now to protect the state's famed coastline from the effects.

"Sea levels are rising. We know that, and we know they are going to be accelerating in the future," said Kelsey Ducklow, a climate change analyst with the commission. "Projections right now that we are using indicate about 5 1/2 feet by the end of the century, but there are efforts underway to understand if that is accurate. And it is looking now, especially if we don't change, it will be potentially higher."

But for the commission, the regulatory body that oversees land use and public access in the Golden State's coastal zone, the future is now.

"The first types of impacts will come from storms," Ducklow said. "El Nino is the kind of example that might happen on a more common basis."

El Nino is an occasional weather phenomenon in which a warm band of water forms along the equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean. Which not completely understood, it typically causes more frequent and wetter storms to hit California

The fury of these storms also cause higher tides, flooding and other damaging events that wreak havoc on roads, developments, public facilities and homes situated up and down the California coast.

In response, the commission has developed a Sea Level Rise Policy, a document aimed at helping local jurisdictions to incorporate current and potential impacts of a rising ocean on their land-use policies.

The Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank focusing on water resources, estimated in a landmark 2009 study that a rise of 4.6 feet would endanger $100 billion worth of property. This property includes seven wastewater-treatment plants, commercial fisheries, marine terminals, Highway 1, 14 power plants, homes, and other important development and infrastructure.

"People who are already in the coastal flood plain are going to see an increased risk in coming decades, and a number of communities, industries, and vital infrastructure will be exposed to new risks," said Matthew Heberger, research associate of the Pacific Institute and co-author of the report.

Highway 1 in particular veers close to the coast on the outskirts of Half Moon Bay, where the commission's meeting held its meeting Wednesday. It won't take much to render stretches of the highway unusable if the sea rise continues to accelerate as scientists predict.

"There are huge swathes of development at risk," Ducklow said.

But she also cautioned that the focus of agencies looking at adapting to rising oceans should not solely focus on developed parcels, public or private.

A concept of coastal squeeze will not only affect houses, but public beaches, recreation access and wildlife, officials warn.

"If we keep up the status quo, the focus on private development will come at the expense of public beaches," Ducklow said. "We need to strive to make sure the environmental benefits of our program are equally distributed."

The Pacific Institute also believes environmental justice needs to be forefront in any assessment of how best to adapt.

"We saw it with Hurricane Katrina," said Eli Moore, research associate for the Pacific Institute's Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice Program. "Pre-existing social and environmental inequities make some communities less able to afford emergency-preparedness materials, buy insurance policies, and evacuate to escape a disaster's harm."

In California, people without a car, those who don't speak English and people who live near hazardous waste facilities are particularly vulnerable.

While the commission has been out in front identifying the problem, so far its solutions have focused on distributing about $4.5 million worth of grants to communities to use toward planning purposes.

If Wednesday's meeting was an indication, updates to the Local Coastal Programs which coastal cities and counties are required to adhere will be a process fraught with contention, confusion and complexity.

Marin County attempted to update its Local Coastal Program, and county supervisors and many residents expressed concern that new provisions related to sea level rise infringes private property rights and could depress property values with overregulation — all with an as yet unknown amount of environmental benefit.

"Sea level rise planning can elicit passion on both sides," Jack Ainsworth, acting executive director of the Coastal Commission, said during the meeting.

Nevertheless, the commission plans to forge ahead with its grant programs, coordinating with local governments and performing vulnerability assessments in an attempt to identify which communities and areas are particularly susceptible to adverse effects from a rising ocean.

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