A Statewide Response To Sea Level Rise

Ocean views from the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in 2017

The California Coastal Commission (CCC) has been issuing policy guidelines for sea level rise for the last six years. It has also been encouraging cities to employ a strategy called “managed retreat” and generally frowns upon “armoring” the coast with rocks and seawalls. The commission is now taking the first steps toward rethinking some of its current policies and looking at the state as a whole, realizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to ways of adapting to sea level rise. 

The commission established a sea level rise working group that is assigned to list and examine all the hard questions that are arising as the California coastline changes due to faster-than-anticipated sea level rise. The group gave an initial report at the CCC’s October meeting.  

Madeline Cavalieri, CCC district manager, kicked off the presentation, saying the first task was to draft a joint statement of shared principles and come up with adaptation strategies for sea level rise.

Some of the areas to be explored will include: the problem of disappearing beaches and damage to infrastructure; the lack of funding for adapting to sea level rise; the idea of creating strategies that are flexible; legal complexities; different regional and neighborhood approaches to the problem; not falling back on piecemeal solutions; the problem of serving visitors when the beaches are actually disappearing and changing local coastal programs.

Lynda Hopkins, a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, emphasized the need to treat different areas differently when it comes to sea level rise, pointing out the difference between the totally undeveloped areas of coastline in her county, versus the heavily developed coastline of Mission Beach in San Diego.  

As an example of a sea level rise project, Hopkins showed the erosion of Gleason Beach in Sonoma County over the past 50 years, as well as the plan to fix it, which would involve moving the coastal highway inland. It would be a very expensive project with no available funding, although local supervisors there are working with Caltrans to try to get it done.

Bruce Gibson, a supervisor in San Luis Obispo County, pointed out several problems he foresees in his county due to sea level rise. The beachfront town of Cayucos already has many beachfront homes where armament or sea walls have been approved. How can he maintain equity between neighbors by telling new applicants they cannot have the same protection?

At San Simeon, the water treatment plant is basically located on the beach, and it will have to be relocated inland as the sea level rises—but it will be expensive.

John Leopold, first district supervisor of Santa Cruz County, described vast geological differences along the 29 miles of coast in his county: everything from rocky cliffs to sand dunes. He said sea walls already cover half the coast in the urban areas. Some areas of beach at the bottom of high cliffs are being “drowned” by sea level rise.  

Leopold’s county has already tried to take some measures, including the idea of writing local coastal programs with “repetitive loss language,” meaning that if a beachfront home is lost once due to the ocean, the owner can rebuild. If that home is lost a second time, it cannot be rebuilt. The county is also encouraging the formation of Geological Hazardous Abatement Districts (GHADs)—similar to the Broad Beach GHAD—by neighborhoods as a way of defraying costs over 30 years. He also recommends reviewing LCPs every 20 years in view of changing sea level rise predictions.

CCC Executive Director Jack Ainsworth said there was no one solution. 

“We ought to be open to all options and to regional and local adaptation plans,” Ainsworth said. “Some limited armory is going to be needed in some areas for interim protection … We don’t have funding in place for any large-scale managed retreats.” He talked about adapting in phases and the need for some interim bluff stabilization. 

“We need to realize there will be some tradeoffs,” he stated. “It’s going to be messy and difficult, and we’ll all need to join together going forward—us, local governments, et cetera.”