How should California confront a rising sea? Lawmakers have some big ideas

Coastal communities such as La Jolla could be at risk from sea-level rise in the coming decades, researchers say.

In a year marked by record-breaking wildfires, extreme heat and unprecedented water shortages, California lawmakers say there’s another — seemingly distant, but just as urgent — climate-related threat the state cannot afford to ignore: sea-level rise.

It’s the focus of more than a dozen new bills and resolutions this year mobilized by years of research and piecemeal efforts across the state to keep the California coast above water.

The proposals mark a paradigm shift in the way officials are addressing the social, economic and environmental pressures looming over the state’s eroding coastline.

Researchers say the surge of political interest — and willpower — comes not a moment too soon. Across the state, rising water is already flooding homes. Major roads, utility lines and other critical infrastructure are dangling ever closer to the sea. At least $8 billion in property could be underwater by 2050, analysts say, with an additional $10 billion at risk during high tides. In the next decade, the ocean could rise more than half a foot, they say, with heavy storms and cycles of El Niño projected to make things worse.

Legislative analysts recently made the case in a report that any action — or lack of action — within the next 10 years could determine the fate of the California coast. All told, more than $150 billion in property across the state could be at risk of flooding by 2100 if business continues as usual and global temperatures continue to rise, researchers say.

“The future of California’s coast is in jeopardy. … Now is not the time to drown out scientists or put our heads in the sand,” said California Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a Democrat who represents the 39th Senate District, which includes La Jolla. Her extensive measure, Senate Bill 1, clarifies legal and bureaucratic obstacles that often have made large-scale planning a non-starter.

The bill, supported by seven co-authors, proposes $100 million each year for sea-level-rise adaptation, plus additional funding for coastal communities that are disproportionately burdened by industrialization and pollution.

“It’s easy to ignore the problem in front of you until it is a crisis,” Atkins said. “But if we don’t act now, taxpayers, homeowners, businesses, local communities and the state will face massive losses in just a few short years.”

But what exactly this action looks like — and who pays and who benefits — remains a tough balancing act. There are only so many ways to protect infrastructure, homes, beaches and entire communities from the rising sea, and each option comes with sacrifices and its own set of controversies.

Take seawalls, for example. While effective in protecting beachfront homes and infrastructure in the short term, they can disrupt the erosion and natural replenishment of sand, drowning beaches until they narrow or vanish.

Sources: Gary Griggs, UC Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Sciences; Kiki Patsch, Cal State Channel Islands
(Lorena Elebee / Los Angeles Times)

Managed retreat — relocating properties and infrastructure far enough from the coast to make room for the next few decades of sea-level rise — also has been fraught. That option often pencils out as the most cost-effective and forward-thinking — but the logistical challenges of translating short-term interests (preserving property values) into long-term planning (getting out of harm’s way before the water arrives) has been a political quagmire.

One idea that has emerged recently is a revolving-loan program introduced by state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica). Senate Bill 83 essentially proposes giving local governments the ability to buy properties considered at risk from sea-level rise in the next decade or two and then rent them out at market value to recoup the costs. When the time comes, the local government could demolish the property and perhaps use it as some form of natural protection from the sea.

The voluntary program would give homeowners the chance to move on their own terms and sell their beachfront properties while they still have value. Taxpayers, in turn, wouldn’t be burdened with the costs of cleaning up after an emergency. Studies indicate that society as a whole saves $6 in avoided costs for every $1 spent to acquire or demolish flood-prone buildings before disaster hits.

“We don’t want this to be a net loss to taxpayers. In some cases it could even be a gain,” Allen said. “The whole idea of this proposal is it pays itself off because we’re getting on top of this early. Think about the cost and lives that could’ve been saved if California had taken more action decades ago to better mitigate against the threat of today’s wildfires.”

Much of this is uncharted. Allen and his staff did not have any case studies to model the program after, so they consulted researchers at UCLA, coastal planners and their colleagues in Sacramento, who helped refine the details of the bill through legislative hearings this year. The proposal so far has received bipartisan support and no registered opposition.

Longtime experts in the climate adaptation field have been following these discussions with great interest. This year’s proposals mark a fundamental shift in the oft-held view that responding to sea-level rise is a one-time action rather than an ongoing process that requires bigger-picture planning with the community, said A.R. Siders, who has been studying managed retreat and its equity implications at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.

“How do you navigate that middle space where people don’t need to move today, but they will need to move eventually?” Siders said. “So many places have been trying to figure out this transition. That’s where everyone’s struggling — and that’s where I think this lease-back plan is a really interesting one. It has the potential to really help people figure out that middle space.”

Sara Aminzadeh, a member of the California Coastal Commission, said all the legislation this year felt like a major turning point. For the past 10 years or so, the relatively few sea-level-rise bills that have popped up have largely focused on studying the problem, understanding the science and gathering more information to put on a central website.

Now, in addition to SB 83 and SB 1, other bills this year include measures to improve regional planning, develop an early warning system for coastal landslides and reduce costly barriers to nature-based adaptation projects.

There also has been much discussion with the governor’s office on how to dedicate more of the state budget to building coastal resilience.

“We’re seeing some really significant reforms. … We’re no longer merely trying to wall ourselves against the rising sea and saying, ‘How long can we stick this out?’” Aminzadeh said. “We’re thinking in a more fundamental way about the things that we care about as Californians and how to ensure a future in which we still have beaches and coastal parks and access for all.”

For Charles Lester, who has been pushing for more substantive sea-level-rise planning for more than a decade — first as executive director of the Coastal Commission and now as director of UC Santa Barbara’s Ocean and Coastal Policy Center — these increasingly focused discussions have been encouraging.

“The legislation shows that we understand that adaptation will cost a lot but that it is an important investment that society needs to make,” he said. Many costs — and priorities on where to put the new infusion of funding — still need to be worked out, he noted.

This is just the beginning, he said, “of what will be a huge undertaking for many decades to come.” ◆