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Coastal Cities Wrestling With 'Managed Retreat' Ramifications Of Rising Sea Levels

Del Mar beach, July 2019
Alison St John
Del Mar beach, July 2019
The California Coastal Commission has encouraged cities to include a strategy called “managed retreat” in their plans to prepare for sea level rise. But the commission may be retreating from that position.

The California Coastal Commission has encouraged cities to include a strategy called “managed retreat” in plans to prepare for sea level rise. But the commission may be retreating from that position.

Del Mar is a prime example of a city where an entire neighborhood is threatened by rising seas. Mayor Dave Druker said that houses along the Del Mar beach are actually higher than the houses in the narrow lanes behind them.

“The houses in the front row, in some ways, are protecting all the houses to the east of them,” he said. “That becomes problematic if they retreat — then that basically allows the ocean to take over the whole flood plain north of Powerhouse all the way to the San Dieguito River, and that in turn would mean that everybody would have to leave their home. That would wipe out about 600 houses in Del Mar.”


Druker said Del Mar’’s updated “Local Coastal Plan” to prepare for sea level rise starts with importing more sand to build up the beach. The strategy called “managed retreat” is not in the plan. Managed retreat could involve acquiring structures in the path of the rising ocean and moving them inland.

“First of all, purchasing those properties would be extremely expensive. And secondly, where would those people move in Del Mar?” Druker said. “There just isn’t the space.”

Houses in north Del Mar can list at more than $20 million. Druker said it’s unclear who would be liable for that loss if the city required property owners to retreat from the beach.

“What does managed retreat mean?” he asked. “What is the liability of the cities, of the state? The state really needs, we believe, to weigh in on this and come up with, ‘these are the rules of the road.’”

Waves topping beach stairs in Del Mar, 2016
City of Del Mar Vulnerability Assessment 2018
Waves topping beach stairs in Del Mar, 2016

Imperial Beach City Councilman Ed Spriggs had the same message for California Coastal Commissioners at a recent workshop for cities updating their Local Coastal Plans, or LCPs. He said even the words “managed retreat” evoke fear that people will lose their homes, and stops any rational discussion of preparing for sea level rise.


“Once that has happened, it becomes very difficult in any coastal city where it has become politicized. (People ask) 'Are you going to be taking private property? Is this eminent domain?'” Spriggs said. “Once that discussion gets started, then the whole discussion of the entire LCP gets sidetracked.”

Spriggs advised Coastal Commissioners not to require cities to include managed retreat as an option in their initial Local Coastal Plan updates.

“Rather, the LCP should look at all the data but not mandate to incorporate managed retreat or planned relocation in the LCP,” he said.

The Coastal Commission is not changing its recommendation to include managed retreat, according to Coastal Planning Manager Madeline Cavalieri said.

“No,” she said, “the commission continues to recommend that local jurisdiction first understand their vulnerability to sea level rise and then look at a range of adaptation strategies — from protection to retreat — and then identify policy options that work best for them.”

Cavalieri said the commission began working with coastal communities on preparing for sea level rise in 2013.

“We have made tremendous progress understanding the vulnerabilities along our coastline, and our opportunities for responding and adapting,” Cavalieri said. “It’s a complicated process and one of the biggest challenges currently facing us is the need for the public, property owners, and visitors to understand what those sea level vulnerability assessments have found."

"We will be able to move forward better when people have an understanding of what the expected impacts are and what we can do about them," she said.

Cavalieri said situations have already arisen in California where a local jurisdiction had to use public money to demolish a privately owned building that crumbled due to sea level rise, after the owners went bankrupt.

VIDEO: Coastal Cities Wrestling With 'Managed Retreat' Ramifications Of Rising Sea Levels

Planners now accept it will take time for people to come to grips with the data coming in about sea level rise — and what it will mean, Cavalieri said.

“Managed retreat is going to happen over a long time scale,” she said. “In many cases it will be decades or even generations of shifting development along our coastline.”

But Coastal Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh said at the workshop in July that she’s disappointed by any move away from prioritizing managed retreat as a strategy to prepare for sea level rise.

“As we know, as time moves forward, we have less and less options,” Aminzadeh told city representatives at the workshop. “We really need the leadership of local communities. I understand it’s putting you in a difficult position where your constituents don’t want to hear the phrase (managed retreat) and have a lot of very valid property right concerns, but I think it’s incumbent on all of us together to change the narrative and make the case for why it’s necessary.”

Studies have shown that postponing plans to adapt to sea level rise only makes it more expensive.

Mayor Druker said Del Mar residents are not denying sea level rise will happen.

“Del Martians will deal with it when they see the actual impacts of global warming on a more weekly, yearly basis,” he said. “And until that happens, it’s still theoretical.”

In October, the Coastal Commission will consider Del Mar’s Local Coastal Plan update. It’s not clear if the commissioners will certify the plan if it does not include managed retreat as an option to adapt to future sea level rise.

In late 2018 the commission changed its recommendations on possible sea level rise that all state agencies should prepare for by the turn of the century — from 6 feet to 10 feet.

Coastal Cities Wrestling With 'Managed Retreat' Ramifications Of Rising Sea Levels
Listen to this story by Alison St. John.

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