California confronts a sea change


Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey don’t need to wait on gridlocked Washington to confront future risks from climate-change intensified storms. They can instead look at how California is already moving forward on common-sense adaptations, and do it themselves. With 3.5 million Californians living within three feet of sea level, and the best available science projecting a 3- to 5-foot rise in sea level for the state by 2100, doing nothing would be irresponsible.

In Northern California, rising sea levels are projected to affect more than a quarter of a million people and threaten more than $60 billion in infrastructure in the San Francisco Bay/Delta region, putting power stations, water-treatment plants, roads, buildings and the San Francisco and Oakland airports (both built on filled wetlands) at risk. In Southern California, scientists point to the loss of 3,000 beachfront homes to major El Niño winter storms in the 1980s as suggestive of what climate change has in store.

In fact, for the next few decades it will be extreme storms, with their accompanying waves and king tides, not sea-level rise per se that will have the most impact in the state, according to U.S. Geological Survey testimony last year to the California Ocean Protection Council, the state’s umbrella agency for coordinating its response to rising seas.


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For starters, California is ahead of most states in its attempts to address the problem at its source by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Over half of U.S. venture capital investment in clean technology is now taking place in California, and energy conservation and efficiency programs already in place have helped keep the state’s per capita energy consumption steady over 30 years (in the rest of the nation, it has increased 40%). But climate change is happening, so adaptation, as well as prevention, is going to be essential.

A number of local and state efforts are underway. This year, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the state’s original coastal protection group, amended its long-standing San Francisco Bay Plan to make sure projected sea-level rise is taken into account by any new project, such as a planned $1.5-billion development on Treasure Island in the middle of the bay.

After repeated flooding from winter storms in 2009-10 shut down the Great Highway along the city’s share of the Pacific coast, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed pumping dredged sand onto the beach to shore it up and a city think tank suggested “planned retreat” — shrinking and rerouting the highway at a cost of $343 million — as the best long-term solution. While the options are reviewed, city workers continue armoring the southbound lanes with boulders.

Down the peninsula, on the bay side, a major wetlands restoration project now underway is expected to reduce the impact of sea-level rise and flooding on small, low-income towns such as Alviso as well as on low-lying, high-dollar-value corporate campuses, such as those of Yahoo in Sunnyvale and Google in Mountain View.

In Newport Beach in Southern California, city planners are looking into raising sea walls in waterfront neighborhoods like Balboa Island that are prone to flooding. They may also begin requiring that foundations on new beach properties be raised several feet, a modest start but a start nonetheless.


Governments in San Diego, Ventura and Humboldt counties are also embarking on multi-stakeholder efforts to adjust their zoning and permit systems to account for storm tides and sea-level rise. The city of Ventura has completed the first phase of a managed retreat at Surfer’s Point, removing a sea-damaged parking lot and moving a bike trail 65 feet inland. About half the towns along California’s coast have begun developing climate adaptation policies.

“It’s not uncertainty about the science keeping them from acting,” says Amber Mace, former California Ocean Protection Council executive director. “It’s lack of funding, lack of staff and a lack of support from outside.”

Part of the council’s job is to provide coastal communities with high-resolution seafloor maps and updated intertidal and shoreline maps that are basic to sea-rise and storm-surge planning. The council also provides links to scientists who are working to downscale the projections of climate impacts from the 200-mile grids used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change so that they can be applied to zoning, beachfront management and other land-use decisions.

The council, with strong backing from Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger before him, has worked to persuade other agencies to incorporate sea-level rise and other climate change projections into their work.

For example, the California Coastal Commission is expected to require all waterfront communities to include extreme flooding and sea-level-rise planning in their local coastal plans. The state is also considering withholding some funds from communities until they have a comprehensive climate-change adaptation policy in place.

The state Water Resources Control Board is another state agency that is responding to expected flooding due to more extreme weather patterns. It has established tougher standards for storm water runoff, which again will force coastal communities to plan for climate change impacts.


It’s worth remembering that after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, California set new standards for fire and building safety, many of which eventually became national standards. Now the state is poised to do the same with its planning for climate change.

Certainly if there’s any place on the globe where there’s been the convergence of scientific knowledge and inquiry, entrepreneurial spirit and a public willingness to lead the world in new directions, it’s in California. But the common-sense lessons being learned here about coastal adaptation need to be applied from sea to shining sea.

David Helvarg is executive director of the Blue Frontier Campaign. His next book, “The Golden Shore — California’s Love Affair with the Sea,” will be published in February.