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Imperial Beach Officials Planning For Sea Level Rise

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Imperial Beach faces the most imminent threat from rising sea levels, and city officials are already thinking about adaptation strategies.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 This is KPBS midday addition. I'm mark Sauer. I'm Maureen Cabinet. Scientists say there's no escaping rising ocean levels as the climate changes. That prediction is not lost on the officials in San Diego counties. Southern most coastal community. Imperial beach is already feeling the impact of rising ocean levels from our climate change desk. KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson has to tails

Speaker 2: 00:25 imperial beaches year began with a king tide

Speaker 3: 00:28 store. This is Cortez Avenue and back in January this place was a mess. You can see over here the sandbags that they were using in part to hold back some of the sand and the water that was coming onto this street. If you look over here, these are the big rocks that are designed to keep the ocean off of. This property didn't quite work out that way. It just washed right over and brought with it sand and water. It looked like the ocean and just expanded, but it was coming out of school.

Speaker 2: 01:02 Serge Adina is the mayor of imperial beach.

Speaker 4: 01:05 We're just seeing a lot more things happening that we just never used to see him see me before.

Speaker 2: 01:08 Dudina knows rising ocean levels are a problem for his community of about 28,000 he joined us to talk about rising sea levels, but not where you might expect. This area is on the northern edge of the town and it's already feeling the effect of a rising ocean.

Speaker 4: 01:26 We're the south end of San Diego Bay. This is a a little uh, inlet from the bay, which is a national wildlife refuge that connects to our storm drain system and then flows under Bayside elementary schoolers to steam academy. This was, this was still a wetland right here, so really what's happening with sea level rise and coastal flooding, it's the water's reoccupying the area that it used to flow through. Anyway, when you see the flood maps and IB, what you're seeing is water going to areas where it traditionally was, IB was really built on sort of a wetland and salt flats. So we're really re nature's is coming back to reoccupied the areas that always wasn't. Yeah.

Speaker 2: 02:01 Dudina says Bayside Elementary. His future is uncertain because flood maps show this neighborhood could be mostly underwater if ocean levels continue to rise to Deena says it takes just a little stormy weather to make that happen. Now

Speaker 4: 02:15 25 to 50 mile an hour northwest winds pushing water this way, a king tide heavy rain and we're getting heavier rains and normal because of all the moisture in the atmosphere and so water starts going like you know, starts pushing this way. You get the whole storm drain system backed up and then you get start getting the rain flooding. Um, the neighborhood as well. That's already happening.

Speaker 2: 02:35 Dina says the natural geography that is causing problems may also offer some solutions. He says there is still a buffer between San Diego Bay and the public property the school sits on. He says, turning that buffer into wetland habitat could help to Deena says it's something city officials are already talking about. What

Speaker 4: 02:54 can we do in a natural climate solution way? What are the adaptation measures that we can take? What are the restoration efforts we can take? Can we, can we sort of work with nature first and foremost? And and, and see if we can minimize the, the risks that way.

Speaker 2: 03:08 Dino sees promise in some of the wetland restoration, the u s fish and wildlife services already done on the southern edge of San Diego Bay, but he's also realistic. He knows the ocean is capable of reclaiming parts of imperial beach and he worries about the rising water levels and how it will hurt the rest of his city.

Speaker 4: 03:27 This year we spent $15,000 on a dress and taking sand out of a national wildlife refuge because the federal government was closed. That's our junior lifeguard program for the summer. That means that underserved kids that don't have a lot of money get free scholarships to go to the junior lifeguard program and spend the summer at the beach. Well, if we're spending all our money on sea level rise and coastal flooding, we can't help our most underserved low income kids have a great quality of life. And that's really important for me.

Speaker 2: 03:50 And while quality of life is an issue at imperial beach, so is the city's economy. Visitors pump lots of money into the community when they drop in to enjoy the coast and beaches. Most of my Dave's gum from tourists, Cesar Romero relies on tourists for his livelihood and they're going to come to take a walk on the Pier Mosley while he doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about sea level rise, he does acknowledge an encroaching ocean could change everything, not just the shoreline. Joining me is KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson and Eric Welcome. Thank you. Now, what kinds of things is imperial beach seeing in these big storms that they haven't seen before? I think the intensity of the storms is really what has increased the impact on, on the shoreline there. And city officials, you know, they've had high surf there before, but not at this level.

Speaker 2: 04:44 And the interesting thing about January was it was a, a storm system that was creating high surf at the same time that there was an astronomically high king tide. So you had those two things together that kind of provided that window into the future. This is what it's gonna look like. If sea levels continue to rise and then you have a storm event, you can expect this kind of thing in the county. How does creating or restoring a wetlands environment help control the effects of sea level rise the way they were planning to help Bayside elementary? Well, if you look at where Bayside elementary is, it's right basically on the northern edge of imperial beach and the southern edge of San Diego Bay. But the water doesn't, you know, come right up to the city, limits the waters a little bit away. Uh, there's a pond there at the southern end of the bay that holds water.

Speaker 2: 05:34 And if you look around the area, there is a river channel. And then there's marsh and wetlands. And what they're talking about, uh, and some of these, uh, adaptive measures is if you expand that buffer between the city of imperial beach and San Diego Bay, it'll be able to absorb some of this high wave action, uh, during storm. It'll be able to absorb some of the sea level rise that will push up the level of water in San Diego Bay. And so that they feel that by looking at those solutions, by increasing that buffer and kind of creating a space for the water to go when it rises up, that that'll be a way to keep it out of the neighborhood. Has any kind of mapping been done to anticipate where imperial beach is most vulnerable to sea level rise? Sure. They've looked at flood maps, which is what a surge add on.

Speaker 2: 06:26 They're being proactive looking at where the water may come and there's an interesting tool available online to people who are diligent. The US Geological Survey has done this for the entire state of California. They look at the coastline, they estimate how land will be affected if there's one foot of sea level rise, two feet, four feet, six feet, 10 feet, and then they show you in vivid detail where the water will be if the ocean level rises that much. And it's pretty clear to see when you get around six feet of sea level rise, which is what many of the climate scientists are saying is probably going to happen by 2040 or maybe before then. Uh, then there are big impact, especially in a community like imperial beach, which is a low light and community. You know, it's not, they're not build up on a coastal bluff. It's right there close to the level of the ocean.

Speaker 2: 07:23 Is that why they're serving as kind of a bellwether for the larger San Diego community when it comes to the effects of climate change they're going to feel at first because they're the lowest line community? I think the interesting thing about San Diego County and our 70 miles of coastline is the fact that every community kind of has a different issue to deal with, right? For Imperial Beach, it's that low lying community where the water will surround the city essentially and then try to creep its way into the city boundaries. You have areas like along Encinitas where they have the bluff, so they're, they're concerned about coastal erosion. It depends on where you're looking in San Diego County and there's a real variety of the, of the kinds of threats being posed because there's a real variety in the kinds of coastline that we're, we're talking about what parts of San Diego's infrastructure could start feeling the first effects of sea level rise.

Speaker 2: 08:13 What might break down first? Well, it's the obvious thing, right? It's the thing that delivers a water away from the city. It's the storm drains, right? So you have storm drains that are designed to channel a storm water in the cities in San Diego County, and then they have to carry that storm water somewhere. And it's usually to an ocean outfall, et Cetera, or maybe into mission bay, different places around the city. But if the, if the level of water where they're dumping it is rising, perhaps that storm drain won't have anywhere to, you know, it could be covered up by a rising level of a bay or the ocean. And then that storm drain has nowhere to go and it backs up and it pushes the water back into the city. So, yeah, that's one thing that has to be looked at pretty soon. And imperial beach is already feeling the effects of that. They've seen that

Speaker 1: 08:59 given the intense environmental concerns and imperial beach, I guess it's no surprise the city has just enacted the strictest plastics ban in the county. Can you tell us about that?

Speaker 2: 09:10 Sure. Um, what they've done is they really kind of expanded some of the protections that were already in place. They had a pretty good, uh, polystyrene ban in place for the city of imperial beach. Uh, I think it was back in 2017 when they pass that they expanded it to limit single use plastic bags and any kind of a city related function or city activity or city vending job. Uh, and they've limited the sale of plastic utensils that are not bio degradable, just traditional plastic forks and spoons and straws and those kinds of things. Um, and I think that the logic behind that for imperial beach and fee officials is that they don't want to be the people that do bad things to the beach that they rely on so much. It's such a big part of their community. They don't want to be doing things in their daily life that impacts the quality and the health of that, that beach, and that's, that's what's moving this forward.

Speaker 1: 10:06 I've been speaking with KPBS environment reporter, Eric Anderson. Erik, thanks. My pleasure.

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KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.