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State Urges Officials Not to Postpone Planning for Sea Level Rise

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A California report urges local and state governments not to get distracted by COVID-19 from planning ahead for rising seas.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic has distracted California from what is a more serious existential threat climate change and sea level rise. The California legislative analyst's office has issued a well-researched report with sobering reminders of what sea level rise will do to our coastline, our economy, and to our public and private property. Rachel Ehlers author of the report joins us to talk about why we would be better off preparing for sea level rise rather than waiting for it to hit. Rachel, thanks for joining.

Speaker 2: 00:31 Thank you for having me

Speaker 1: 00:33 So long ago, we were talking about sea level rise in terms of inches, and now it's feet. It's not sometime in the future. And I would say it's in our lifetimes. What estimates did you decide are credible for your report?

Speaker 2: 00:44 The latest guidance suggests with somewhat certainty that we will see about a foot of sea level rise by 2030 as the years go out, the uncertainty grows, but the latest recommendations from the state are suggesting to plan for 3.5 feet by 2050, and up to seven feet. By the end of the century,

Speaker 1: 01:06 Let's focus on San Diego County, economically San Diego has a huge port. For example, how would sea level rise affect that?

Speaker 2: 01:14 Yeah, the economic impacts for San Diego are serious. It's not just residential houses along the coast. It's not just the recreation economy and the beaches, but also the port and the Navy base that are there along San Diego Bay and key pieces of the economic picture in San Diego and really quite at risk from sea level rise. So, and also the transportation networks that come from the port and feed into the port with the train tracks you saw in Del Mar in December, the cliffs eroding had to shut down the train passageway for a period while there were repairs because the cliffs, the road erosion was so close to the track. So really pretty serious regional impacts that are going to need to be addressed

Speaker 1: 02:02 Estimate economic damage to this part of the California coastline. Say by 2050,

Speaker 2: 02:08 There have been some funded studies just around economic impacts in San Diego County. And they're pretty sobering. Uh, they suggest that with three feet of sea level rise combined with a large storm, it could impact 15,000 jobs and $2 billion of regional gross domestic product. So PR pretty large numbers and really a lot of it focused around the tourism and recreation industries.

Speaker 1: 02:32 So who is responsible for planning for sea level rise? Is it mainly up to local government?

Speaker 2: 02:37 Yeah, it really is because most of the land use decisions are made at the local level. Most of the funding typically comes at the local level. Most of the public property along the coast is owned at the local level, but the state can play and should play a really important role helping in particular fund some pilot projects that we can learn. The California

Speaker 1: 03:00 Coastal commission has been urging local jurisdictions to come up with adaptation plans. Is there actually money to help cities put those plans into practice though?

Speaker 2: 03:09 Some we, the state has, has some funding primarily through voter approved bonds. Uh, there was a lot of discussion in Sacramento, the beginning part of the year about putting another bond on the ballot, but statewide for voters to approve that really focused on climate change and climate adaptation and climate response. Uh, those plans were put on hold due to the pandemic and other priorities

Speaker 1: 03:32 I know here in San Diego, one of the major barriers to planning is resistance from private property owners who don't want their property values to go down, understandably, what can be done to overcome that?

Speaker 2: 03:43 Well, one of the biggest steps we can take is just greater public understanding of what's coming. We, none of us want property values to go down and none of us want our houses to, to be threatened or lost, but what's coming is coming. The science is relatively clear about that. We have some uncertainty about the degree and timing of sea level rise, but we know it's coming and so we can prepare for it or not. Um, so our, our advice to our bosses in the legislature and to the public is, is to start preparing. And one of the big ways to do that is for people to understand it's not going to happen tomorrow, so we don't need to change things tomorrow, but, but it is coming. And so how can we be thoughtful about what is coming and what the best ways to prepare for it are that minimize harm and impact to people and our natural resources.

Speaker 1: 04:34 I understand one of the possible measures would be to require that coastal flooding disclosures are part of any real estate transactions.

Speaker 2: 04:42 You know, the state has disclosure for real estate for threats like wildfires and earthquakes. There's actually more certainty about what's happening with what will happen with sea level rise in the flooding. Then there is about earthquakes, which we don't know when they'll come or even wildfires. And so we think as a public policy measure, it makes sense for buyers and investors to have a fully informed decision when they're making a decision like buying a house, which is usually the largest purchase that a family will make.

Speaker 1: 05:14 You actually say three main strategies for tackling rising seas just quickly as a thumbnail. What are they? And which are we using so far?

Speaker 2: 05:23 Uh, yeah, there are three. One is to protect, which is building seawalls or building up a wetlands or piling rocks to try and keep the waves from coming. Uh, we can also, uh, adapt or modify, which is the actions like raising buildings or structures to allow for periodic flooding. And then we can relocate. We can move out of the harm's way of where the flooding will come. And so it's going to take a combination of all three of these strategies, certainly to respond the challenges that we're facing. Um, we've done quite a bit of protecting so far and that's probably appropriate given we haven't had the degree of sea level rise yet, but that won't be the only strategy upon which we can rely in the future. We're going to need to look in a situation by situation basis and decide, which is the most appropriate and use all three.

Speaker 2: 06:17 So what do you hope issuing your report now we'll do our goal with this report was really to help deepen the understanding both for our bosses in the legislature, but also within the public about the threats that sea level rise pose, because we won't make any progress on our adaptation actions without understanding what the problems are. And so that that's really our goal here, that it broadens understanding and starts to help support some further actions to begin preparing. We've been speaking with Rachel Ehlers who's author of the report. What threat does sea level rise pose to California? Thank you so much, Rachel. Thank you for having me.

Speaker 3: 07:10 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.