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California must act now to prepare for sea level rise, state lawmakers say

A wave pounds the shores of Pacifica during high tide.
A wave pounds the shores of Pacifica during high tide. Cities up and down the California coast are grappling with the costs and consequences of climate change.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

At a packed meeting catering to state lawmakers and top planning officials, Mark Merrifield played a video that he and his research team at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have seen many times before.

The camera zooms in on the majestic sandy bluffs that make this stretch of the San Diego County coast so iconic: a close-up, everyone realizes, of that cliff crumbling in real time — ancient sand and soft, somewhat cemented rocks tumbling onto the beach below.

Moments later, a popular commuter rail rumbles by. Some in the room gasped. Lawmakers watched in sober silence.

“This is a natural phenomenon; it’s feeding the beaches, but it’s happening more and more frequently in part because of sea level rise,” said Merrifield, director of Scripps’ Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation. “So what can do? That’s why we’re here, right?”

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Flood projections keep getting worse, critical roads and infrastructure are mere feet from toppling into the sea, cities up and down the coast are paralyzed by the difficult choices ahead — the reality check was bleak as scientists and local leaders shared what they’re up against with the Assembly’s Select Committee on Sea Level Rise and the California Economy.

This special committee of California lawmakers had gathered Tuesday for the first time in five years, reviving a much-needed discussion on sea level rise and what the state needs to do to better prepare coastal communities from devastating loss.

On the southern end of Del Mar, train tracks run precariously close to the edge of rapidly crumbling cliffs.
On the southern end of Del Mar, train tracks run precariously close to the edge of rapidly crumbling cliffs.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

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The rising sea might feel like a slow-moving disaster, they said, but this is a social, economic and environmental catastrophe that the state cannot afford to ignore. By the end of this century, the sea could rise more than 9 feet in California — possibly more if the great ice sheets collapse sooner than expected.

“We know the sea is rising. ... This is not something that’s out there in the future, it’s happening now,” said Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas), who had requested to revive and chair the committee.

“How do we preserve what’s wonderful about our coastline, but really face the realities of the next 100 years with sea level rise?” she said.

The committee reconvenes when the call for bolder actions on climate change is resonating across the country and the world. Youth activists have staged sit-ins and hunger strikes, scientists are speaking out, and celebrities such as Jane Fonda have joined the fray.

Former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, along with former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a new bipartisan coalition of Hollywood celebrities, this weekend declared “World War Zero — the war for net zero carbon emissions.” World leaders this week are gathering at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Madrid for yet another bargaining session over how to stop the planet from overheating.

And more Californians — overwhelmed by swings of drought, then fires, then atmospheric river storms — are waking up to the looming disaster on the shore.

More than $150 billion in property could be at risk of flooding by 2100 — the economic damage far more devastating than the state’s worst earthquakes and wildfires. Salt marshes, home to shorebirds and endangered species, face extinction.

In Southern California alone, two-thirds of beaches could vanish and coastalcliffs could erode 130 feet farther inland, according to recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Along the shores of Del Mar, where train tracks run precariously close to the edge of collapsing cliffs, heavy rains over Thanksgiving had triggered more landslides along this crucial rail corridor on the coast — the only route that connects Los Angeles to San Diego for Amtrak, Coaster and freight trains.

How much worse this all gets depends on how much Californians and the rest of the world can curb carbon emissions, scientists said. The ocean, after all, is absorbing most of this heat.

READ MORE: The California coast is disappearing under the rising sea. Our choices are grim

Boerner Horvath lives along the coast, sees the train tracks fighting for time, and hears how cities in her district are paralyzed by costs and planning decisions beyond what any small town has ever had to confront.

Taking charge of this revived Assembly committee, she wants to get the state Legislature caught up on what the data show and where along the coast needs immediate attention.

“We’re already late to this discussion,” said Boerner Horvath, who held Tuesday’s meeting at Encinitas City Hall. “We’ve studied a lot, and there’s always more to study, but we have pressing issues now throughout our state that we need to address.”

The select committee was formed in 2013 by then-Assemblyman Richard Gordon. Members met for a year and studied the effects of sea level rise on agriculture, tourism, fishing and critical infrastructure.

A report summarizing the committee’s findings noted that the top two barriers for taking action on this disaster are a lack of funding and lack of staff.

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“Take action now to address sea level rise, it is not too late,” the report, now five years old, urged.

“Sea level rise is not a surprise. We know it is happening and will only worsen. We must take advantage of the time we have to address this impending emergency now.”

The severity of impacts will be linked to how quickly action is taken, the report added, citing a statistic from the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast: “If $15 billion of infrastructure improvements had been done prior to the storm, it would have mitigated most of the $60-billion costs that accrued to taxpayers after the storm.”

Policy recommendations from the committee that year led to the creation of the California Climate Resilience Account, a fund for the state’s coastal agencies in charge of managing and helping cities plan for sea level rise. But that fund, officials said, has so far received only a onetime appropriation.

Lawmakers have told cities they must start addressing climate adaptation in their planning, but have otherwise shied away from issuing mandatory directions. The California Coastal Commission, through modest grants and some general guidance, has been encouraging local officials to consider “everything in the toolkit” — including the controversial option of relocating oceanfront properties and critical infrastructure away from the water — when updating city policies.

These battles between coastal officials and local leaders over the shoreline’s future have played out in places such as Del Mar, where lack of statewide action has led many communities to believe what happens in these small towns will set the precedent across California.

Assembly committee members on Tuesday also heard from transportation and airport officials, as well as the Port of San Diego, who all made the case for their infrastructure.

The potential economic cost of closing the train along the Del Mar bluffs for just one year, for example, is estimated to be more than $310 million, according to a cost-benefit analysis by transit officials and the San Diego Assn. of Governments.

City leaders also called on the state for more financial support.

They talked about their need for more sand on their beaches, more shoreline protections and ways to preserve tourism and their communities’ coastal identities.

“The fact is, we have zero money to deal with this,” said Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, whose residents are also demanding more crosswalks, paved roads and a parks and recreation department. “The reality is, we’re going to have to figure this out for all of California.”

Whether any of this money exists has yet to be seen. The committee will reconvene in February — before the start of next year’s budget talks.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office, which provides fiscal and policy advice to state lawmakers, has also started a study on sea level rise and is expected to present its findings early next year.


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