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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

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

 August 1, 2019 at 10:26 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 San Diego's coastal cities struggling to come to grips with sea level rise are discovering that their residents are not yet ready to confront the consequences. The California coastal commission has encouraged cities to include retreating from the coast as an option in the face of rising seas, but KPBS reporter Alison Saint John says, the commission may now be retreating from that position. Speaker 2: 00:24 North del Mar is a prime example. Pull up a city where a whole neighborhood is threatened by sea level rise. Delmar's mayor Dave Drucker explains how the houses along the beach are actually higher than the houses in the narrow lanes behind them. Speaker 3: 00:37 The houses at the front row in some way are protecting all the houses east of there and that becomes problematic. If they retreat, then that basically allows ocean to take over the whole floodplain. That would wipe out about 600 houses in del Mar. Speaker 2: 00:56 Buco says his city has a new local coastal plan to prepare for sea level rise. It starts with importing more send to build up the beach. The strategy called managed retreat is not in the plan. Managed retreat could involve acquiring buildings in the path of the ocean and moving them inland. Speaker 3: 01:13 First of all, the numbers of properties and the expensive purchasing those properties would be extremely expensive. The question also is, is where would those people move? Could they move anywhere else in Del Mar? They're just as into space Speaker 2: 01:28 houses in North Delmark and listed more than $20 million. Who would be liable for that loss if the city required property owners to retreat from the beach? Speaker 3: 01:37 The state really needs, we believe to to weigh in on this and come up with these are the rules of the road. Speaker 2: 01:44 Imperial Beach Councilman Ed sprigs had the same message for California coastal commissioners at a recent workshop for cities updating their local coastal plans or lcps. Sprague says even the words managed retreat evoke fear that people will lose their homes and that stops any rational discussion of preparing for sea level rise. Once that has happened, it becomes very difficult in any coastal city where this becomes politicized. Are you going to be taking private property? Is this eminent domain? Once those discussions get started, you don't get people looking at objectively at what we ought to be doing to address sea level rise. Sprague's advised coastal commissioners not to require cities to include managed retreat as an option in their local coastal planning documents. Berlin cavaliery coastal planning manager for the California Coastal Commission says planners are now accepting that it will take time for people to come to grips with the data coming in about sea level rise and what it will mean. Yeah. Speaker 4: 02:41 We have made tremendous progress on understanding the vulnerabilities that are along our coastline and our opportunities for responding to those and adapting to those. We will be able to move forward better when more people have an understanding of what the expected Speaker 2: 03:00 impacts are and what we can do about them, but coastal commissioners, Sarah, I'm in Zotto says time is of the essence and 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. I believe it's a matter of public health and safety and so I'm really looking to all of you to make it politically viable. I understand that it's, it's putting you on a difficult positions where your constituents don't want to hear the phrase and had a lot of very valid property rights concerns, but I think it's incumbent on all of us together to change the narrative. This is a matter of survival for these communities. Studies have shown that postponing plans to adapt to sea level rise only makes it more expensive. Mayor Druker says del Mar residents are not denying that sea level rise will happen. Speaker 3: 03:51 Okay, tell Martians we'll deal with it when they, they see the actual impacts of global warming on a more weekly, yearly basis and until that happens, it's still theoretical. In October, the California coastal commission, Speaker 2: 04:10 we'll consider del Moz local coastal plan to adapt a future sea level rise. It's not clear if the commissioners will certify the plan if it does not include managed retreat as an option. Late last year, the commission changed its recommendations on the possible sea level rise that all state agencies should prepare for by the turn of the century from six feet to 10 feet. Speaker 1: 04:32 Joining me is KPBS reporter Alison St John and Allison, welcome. Great to be with you. Maureen, do you have a sense of what managed retreat would look like if and when coastal cities start adopting those plans? Would Ocean front property begin to be demolished? Speaker 2: 04:51 Well, um, it's pretty theoretical at this point because I think the only ones that have been demolished so far are the ones that have actually been demolished by the rising oceans. None of them have been demolished on purpose in preparation for rising oceans. There are some, uh, public agencies that have started to take action apparently in Morro Bay for example, they were about to build a new waste water treatment plant and the coastal commission said, hold on a minute, you know, that's not gonna last very long before it gets inundated and they changed their plans and designed it further in. So that's an example of how people are looking at the situation saying, well, we might as well plan for it rather than being caught unawares. Speaker 1: 05:33 So, okay. So if you have a big beautiful expensive house near the shoreline in del Mar, what's your incentive to sign on to a managed retreat plan? Speaker 2: 05:44 I would say you probably do not have any incentive. I'm Maureen, because it would immediately reduce the value of your property. So probably a the better thing to do would be to consider your personal situation very carefully and decide is it more important to me to live here, to continue to live here knowing that my assets down the line may be compromised a or should I perhaps decide to move somewhere else and sell to somebody else to take that risk. Speaker 1: 06:14 And in theory at least there are several years before the effects of sea level rise would threaten these homes. Speaker 2: 06:23 Exactly. And I think this is one of the things that helps people make the decision to stay is because there are so many different predictions as to how long it would be, whether it would be a matter of years or decades or, or even possibly a century before their homes were actually unlivable. Speaker 1: 06:40 Well, on the other side of the managed retreat coin, if the properties that will be threatened by rising sea level are privately owned, why does the city care what happens to them? Speaker 2: 06:50 Well, the city has its residents, uh, interests at heart and I think the city is come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is to provide the data to do the studies and say, here is what your vulnerability is. It's up to you to decide what you're going to do about that and present them with all the options. Because if the city were to decide they were to make an order that people moved, it's unclear as to whether, you know, that might make the city liable for any property loss. So I think the city is, are, we're basically waiting to see how the liability plays out in the courts in the future. But hedging their bets by saying, don't say we didn't warn you. Here is the evidence that this is going to happen. It's just a matter of when. Speaker 1: 07:42 Why are individual cities trying to come up with their own guidelines for managed retreat? Why isn't the state giving coastal communities guidance on this? Speaker 2: 07:52 Well, I think as this whole scenario unfolds, Maureen, there's a very strong feeling that local control is the way to go. And watching the testimony at this workshop at the coastal commission earlier this month was very interesting. Um, the, all the local cities obviously do not want to lose the local controllers. They want to come up with their own plans. The only thing is then the coastal commission has to certify that plan. So the coastal commission is trying to, uh, hold up the warning flag, uh, not the big stack. And you know, people in the coastal commission have said to me, we live in California too. We are not the enemy. We totally sympathize with the situation that you may be in, but here's the information and we recommend that you start planning now rather than waiting until it's going to become more expensive because one thing they have established with studies, however long it takes is that if you don't act ahead of time, it just becomes more and more expensive to deal with. Uh, rising seas. Speaker 1: 08:57 Well, you spoke with the coastal planning manager for the coastal commission who seems to be saying people aren't ready yet to talk seriously about retreating from the coast, from your reporting. Alison, what do you think is going to take to change this from a theoretical threat to an actual problem? Speaker 2: 09:14 Well, I think it is more than just a theoretical threat already. I mean, we've had, um, imperial beach has had lot of flooding. We've had, and some nitas and Carlsbad have seen roads that have been damaged by high tides and storms and they've had to spend a lot of public money on fixing it. The next thing that's going to be costing the public general funds is probably wastewater treatment. You know, pumping stations, things like that, that have been placed close to the coast and will gradually become compromised. So cities I think are beginning to mobilize a little faster than the private sector. It's hard to know how many people have sold their homes because they're aware of this and they don't want to take the loss. But certainly some cities are already planning to not build their infrastructure so close to the coast. And I mean, I think this is one of the big distinctions is between the public and the private preparation and between the existing development and new development, you know, you, it's easier to decide not to build something new than it is to demolish something old. So we have already started to take the steps to not build new stuff quite so close to the coast in some cases. Speaker 1: 10:26 I've been speaking with KPBS reporter, Alison, Saint John and Allison. Thank you. Thank you, Maureen. Speaker 5: 10:36 Uh.

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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.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments