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San Diego’s Climate Crisis: Sea Level Rise Will Threaten Imperial Beach For Decades

This story is part of #CoveringClimateNow, an effort by more than 220 news organizations worldwide to bring about a greater understanding of the real-time impacts of climate change.

Waves wash over riprap along Cortez Avenue in Imperial Beach, Jan. 18, 2019.

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: Waves wash over riprap along Cortez Avenue in Imperial Beach, Jan. 18, 2019.

Imperial Beach regularly experiences flooding during high-tides and storms — climate change and rising oceans are threatening to make that flooding significantly worse.

"IB is vulnerable," said Imperial Beach Lifeguard Captain Robert Stabenow. "The highest point in the whole city is 40 feet (above sea level) — so the whole area is low-lying."

Listen to this story by Matt Hoffman.

Stabenow grew up in Imperial Beach and has been a lifeguard there for 37 years. One of his jobs is fortifying the city when flooding is expected. He doesn't claim to be a climate expert but says he's seen the flooding get worse over time.

"It used to be yeah we’d get coastal flooding like I said in the '70s, '80s and '90s but it was every five to 10 years," he said. "[Now] we’re expecting that every pretty much every high tide in the winter months."

In some areas of Imperial Beach the water literally goes right up to homes and Stabenow said people living with a waterfront view do not want to move their homes.

Reported by Matt Hoffman , Video by Andi Dukleth, Roland Lizarondo

"That’s a very touchy subject and relocation and residents and homes," he said. "Some people, these have been their homes, their entire lives and they don’t want to be relocated... You can’t control mother nature — but you can prepare for it."

RELATED: KPBS Climate Crisis Series

Part of that preparation involves creating sand barriers. But there's a problem with that, says Robert Guza, a sea-level rise expert at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

"Right now in Imperial Beach — and in fact all of Southern California — our beaches have a sand shortage," Guza said. "They’re not going to be sandy beaches we can either maintain them and expect to pay the money or not have sandy beaches."

Guza said the sea level has risen by less than a foot over the past century. But the rise is expected to increase dramatically in the coming decades — by as much as several feet —by 2100.

"Rising sea level will take a chronic problem a shortage of sand and see how bad it can get by flooding the beaches on top of it that are already sand starved," Guza said.

RELATED: San Diego's Climate Crisis: Oyster Hatchery Challenged By Warming Ocean

Stabenow said in years past the city has paid to dump additional sand on the beaches but it does not stay there for long.

"That’s what’s the biggest concern for me and the lifeguards — is no beach," he said. "No beach and there’s no people here. People don't come to the beach if there’s no beach so it would drastically impact visitors coming to Imperial Beach. Hopefully it doesn’t get to that."

Sea walls and other barriers are the best protection against the high tides right now. Climate scientists said the ocean has risen by nearly a foot in Imperial Beach over the past century and it could rise by several feet before century is done.

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Aired: September 19, 2019 | Transcript

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Photo of Matt Hoffman

Matt Hoffman
Health Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI am a general assignment reporter for KPBS. In addition to covering the latest news and issues that are relevant to the San Diego community, I like to dig deeper to find the voices and perspectives that other media often miss.

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