California policymakers begin to acknowledge sea level rise.
Thursday, March 6, 2008
The Best Western Beach Resort in Monterey offers an ocean view – a really close-up ocean view. So close, in fact, that administrators have applied to install a new 600-foot metal seawall in front of the existing barrier that protects the hotel’s Sand Dunes Drive property from the advancing waves.
As global warming melts the ice caps, higher temperatures also cause seawater to expand, pushing waves inland. At the same time, increasingly powerful storms gnaw at the bluffs and cliffs that make up almost three-quarters of the state’s coastline.
Scientists estimate that California’s sea level has risen by more than a half foot over the last century. By some projections, it may rise 3 feet more by 2100. That, coupled with the shoreline’s reaction to maintain its shape, could bring waves 600 feet inland on a shallow slope like Del Monte Beach, according to Naval Postgraduate School professor Ed Thornton. The Monterey Bay is already an area of intense erosion, he adds, losing about 6 feet per year on the southern shoreline.
Along with the Best Western resort, the Ocean Harbor House condominiums on Del Monte Beach are also getting their own seawall. Fort Ord’s former Stilwell Hall and the end of Sand City’s Tioga Avenue are other casualties to rising sea level.
As the sea nibbles at developments’ toes, property owners are building more seawalls and rock revetments – exposing a cache of unanswered legal questions. When does a property owner’s rights trump the public’s, or the ecosystem’s? How much wetland or beach is worth keeping? Should we yield to the ocean’s advance, or try to keep the shore in place mechanically?
“If you’re not careful, you engage yourself in an endless spiral of additional questions to ask. And meanwhile the coast keeps getting developed; the sea keeps rising,” says Jim Titus, an EPA sea level rise expert. “Where are we going to hold back the sea and where are we not going to hold back the sea? That’s the fundamental question.”
The 1976 Coastal Act requires buildings to be engineered to withstand storms and sea level rise for their lifetimes, usually about 75 years, explains California Coastal Commission director Peter Douglas. It also directs agencies to allow property owners to protect their buildings from encroaching waves, unless their coastal permits specifically prohibit armoring.
That’s frustrating for Douglas, who co-authored the Coastal Act. “The law requires the Coastal Commission to approve seawalls to protect existing development,” he says. “Until the law changes, there’s nothing the Commission can do to change that.”
The impasse caught the attention of Stanford law professor Meg Caldwell, who has chaired the California Coastal Commission and served on the California Coastal Conservancy board. “Where are we on a collision course with the impacts of climate change and sea level rise?” she asks. “The policy is to ignore climate change and to ignore sea level rise.”
Caldwell says it’s time for policymakers to deal with the problem. In a recent article in UC Berkeley’s Ecology Law Quarterly, she and Stanford law alum Craig Holt Segall assert that coastal armoring limits public access, destabilizes planning and damages coastal ecosystems while merely forestalling the inevitable. “It is incumbent upon the state to begin to plan and prepare for sea level rise impacts now, while early action can still be effective,” they write.
They suggest “rolling easements,” which would require people to accommodate public tidelands as they migrate inland. This could mean buying out properties that have already begun armoring; issuing conditional building permits that require property owners to demolish structures when the advancing sea threatens; and engineering armoring structures to allow public access and preserve tideland ecosystems.
State policymakers are just getting started on the details. Ocean Protection Council staff, charged with coordinating among state management agencies, may make sea level rise the focus of an upcoming public meeting, says the OPC’s Christine Blackburn.
The Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which serves the Coastal Commission’s role in the San Francisco Bay Area, is already exploring ideas such as requiring new buildings to be set back from the shoreline or designing them to float, says BCDC director Will Travis.
Though new proposals are a work in progress, current responses to sea level rise don’t seem to be working. Waves erode the sand around seawalls, leaving the protected buildings jutting out like little peninsulas. Seawalls can also illegally cut off public beach access and compromise dune habitat. Another process called beach nourishment, which involves trucking or pumping sand onto eroding beaches, is an expensive and temporary fix. It does nothing to stop the natural forces eroding the beach.
“It’s our tendency to build in harm’s way because that’s the most beautiful place to be,” Douglas says. “It might not have been a good idea to allow people to build along the shoreline. But the fact is they did, and nobody’s gonna propose the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to buy up those properties in the short term and move them back.”
He doesn’t see any legislative fixes on the horizon. “That may change as sea level rise becomes more dramatic – more storms, more homes lost,” he says. “But right now that urgency isn’t there.”