Coastal Preservation, Shoreline Armoring, Legal
June 30 2016

Sea Level Rise in San Diego: Managing a Changing Coast

by Legal Intern Kaily Wakefield

Written by Surfrider Legal Intern Kaily Wakefield

Talk to anyone who lives along the coast in California and they will tell you, the shoreline is changing.  Sea level is rising, shorelines are eroding, and coastal communities are beginning to experience the impacts of these changes first hand.  On June 14, the California State Bar Association Environmental Section in association with the Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter sponsored a conference titled Sea Level Rise in San Diego: Managing a Changing Coast to discuss these changes and possible adaptation strategies.  While change is rarely easy to accept, there are some adaptation strategies coastal communities can implement that may lessen the amount of damage and loss they experience in the long run.  The conference brought together a group of concerned attorneys, activists, and decision makers in San Diego, where a panel of experts presented the science, law, and policy of climate induced sea level rise.

David L. Revell, PhD, Principal and Chief Coastal Scientist at Revell Coastal Geomorphology and Management, provided statistics and scientific projections at the beginning of the conference giving attendees a bigger picture of what the driving causes of sea level rise are and what is expected to occur in California in the coming decades.   The scientific information continues to accumulate showing that the mean average of sea level is rising across the globe.  What's more, said Revell, is that "[sea level] isn't rising linearly, it's rising exponentially."  Scientists expect to see a rise in sea level of approximately two meters (six and a half feet) by 2100.  The rise is accelerating in large part due to increasing melt of polar ice and a rise in water temperatures that's causing water to expand.  This means that many people should be taking climate change more seriously than ever before, especially those living in coastal communities.  The City and County of San Diego, is beginning to experience the implications of sea level rise and coastal erosion firsthand.  Due to visible changes, along with daunting models of predicted impacts to San Diego beaches and communities, decision makers are reacting accordingly by devising adaptation plans.  Unfortunately, there is not one best fit plan to accommodate the interests of all those feeling the effects.  Private property rights and public access along the coast continues to be a point of contention.

Sean B. Hecht, Esq., the Co-Executive Director at the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and Evan Frankel Professor of Policy and Practice at the UCLA School of Law, provided analysis of the planning and legal issues California coastal communities are facing.  Professor Hecht commented that California is ahead of the curve for climate adaptation since the State has allotted a significant amount of time and resources to sea level rise planning.  However, he also opined that California is behind the curve of climate adaptation because of the lack of resources available for actually implementing the adaptation plans. 

Angela T. Howe, Esq., Legal Director at the Surfrider Foundation, highlighted Surfrider’s commitment to maintaining public beach access and the growing conflict between maintaining public coastal access and safeguarding private property in the face of sea level rise and coastal erosion.  Coastal armoring has been a popular trend for protecting private property along the coast. Unfortunately, these seawalls deplete the beach by impeding natural erosion, which in turn reduces beach access by removing “towel space.”  Thirty percent of California’s coastline has hard armoring structures already.  For southern California’s shoreline, that number jumps up to fifty percent.   Howe explained how Surfrider has been involved in protecting coastal access, and the recreational resources that accompany access, through several ongoing lawsuits in San Diego County.  In Solana Beach for example, there was thirteen years of active negotiation between stakeholders to develop their Local Coastal Plan, including the City, Surfrider representatives, and the bluff top homeowners, which ultimately ended up in litigation.  Article X, Section 4 of the California State Constitution, along with sections 30001.5 and 30211 of the California Coastal Act provide for maximum protection of the public’s access and use of the coast and ocean.  The City has tried to broker a compromise between stakeholders.  As sea level continues to affect all of coastal California, San Diego County must continue to adapt.

The City of Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, spoke to the specific struggles Imperial Beach has faced in recent years.  Mayor Dedina understands that the tidal and storm events, which have occurred in recent years, are previews for what will be regular events in the future as climate change further disrupts historical norms. With this in mind, Dedina has been using each storm and flood event as an opportunity to learn and strengthen Imperial Beach’s adaptation plan, so as to be more prepared and resilient in the face of future events.  Dedina believes it is important to educate the community about climate change and sea level rise.  He commented, “It is critically important to embrace the science, but it is critically, critically important to explain the science.”  With this in mind, Mayor Dedina will focus on redevelopment in Imperial Beach that embraces adaptation and provides benefits for the community beyond climate resiliency. 

San Diego is likely to be greatly affected by climate induced sea level rise and coastal erosion.  However, with concerted efforts from decision makers, community members, scholars, planners and many more, there is hope that the city and county of San Diego will be able to adapt and maintain its precious coastal recreational areas in the process.