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Editorial: As sea levels rise, California must increase Coastal Commission funding

A man fishes during high tide in Malibu
A man fishes during high tide in Malibu in 2013.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Sea level rise is not some future dystopian fantasy. It is here on the California coast. At high tide, water gushes over stairways leading down bluff trails to beaches and up to some oceanfront homes. Seawater routinely sloshes over Highway 101 between Eureka and Arcata along the northern coast. Homes in some towns already flood. Others perch precariously on crumbling bluffs. Sea walls erected to protect oceanfront homes (for a while) end up accelerating the erosion of public beaches on the other side of those walls.

The huge challenge of adapting to sea level rise stirs controversy in communities up and down the coast that are loath to modify their homes, roads and utilities to deal with this climate-change-induced rise in the ocean. But refusing to confront the problem, according to environmental scientists and advocates, will be catastrophic. High tides are getting higher and extending farther inland. The ocean is already beginning to swallow the coast.

For the record:

12:08 p.m. June 21, 2021

An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly identified the highway that runs between Eureka and Arcata. It is Highway 101.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has rightly called sea level rise an environmental priority, which makes it all the more puzzling that the California Coastal Commission was somewhat overlooked in his budget.

The commission, empowered to protect the coast, is the first line of defense in helping communities meet the threat. The agency manages an online gallery of photos people submit showing the effects of king tides — the ultra-high tides that occur when the Earth is in its closest alignment with the moon and the sun. King tides are not a result of climate change, but they are a sneak preview — and warning — of the future normal to come.

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For nearly five decades, the Coastal Commission has been charged with ensuring public access to the coast. Long before sea level rise was a crisis, the commission has been the only thing that stood between the public having access to the beach and wealthy oceanfront homeowners and hoteliers blocking it for their own purposes. That has made the commission popular with the public and not so popular with moneyed interests with lucrative developments at stake on the coast. Indeed, the agency has been historically underfunded ever since Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican, sought to dismantle it in the 1980s.

This is the agency that takes on landowners who block off trails to the beach, bulldoze sand dunes and do unpermitted grading of land in the Santa Monica Mountains and elsewhere. It led the decades-long effort to get public access to the long cut-off pristine beach of Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara.

But the commission’s budget has never fully recovered from cuts in the 1980s, when it had 212 positions. More than 30 years later, it has 173 positions — and oversees 1,270 miles of coastline — currently on a $26-million budget.

Meanwhile, the commission’s work has only increased in volume and complexity. For example, there are about 2,700 open violation cases of the Coastal Act. But there are only nine people working on enforcement. Five are on the ground — one in each Coastal Commission district office except Sacramento — investigating cases and following up to see if offenders comply with orders to stop or correct the violations. The others are in San Francisco, working on the most serious cases.

Last week, the state Legislature, in the budget sent to the governor, gave the commission an additional $30 million — to be spread over five years. The majority of that money would go to grants to communities working on local coastal plans to adapt to sea level rise.

The grants allow communities to enlist technical experts to help them sort through various approaches. Can the community restore wetlands or build sand dunes? (Both protect against the rising sea.) Should home development be stopped in certain vulnerable areas? In Morro Bay, city officials, working with the commission, relocated a waste water treatment facility from a vulnerable oceanfront location. Officials in San Francisco — which has completed its plan — will, among other measures, import sand to restore the beach and construct dunes in certain places.

That’s a significant increase over Newsom’s proposal to add just $1.6 million to the commission’s budget. The governor should agree to the Legislature’s increase. To be sure, other state agencies have received funds to work on sea level rise adaptation. But the commission’s work is essential to helping localities plan. All that work stalls if the Coastal Commission doesn’t get this funding.

But there’s no stalling the rise of the ocean.


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