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Shaping the Future of California Sea Level Rise Mitigation

Sea level rise is not a new issue facing the landmasses of the world. With each glacial and subsequent interglacial period, the amount of water has influenced to what extent water has covered the Earth’s continents. Since sea level rise is gradual, adaptation by organisms living on the coastline has been relatively successful. The key difference in the age of humans’ urbanized societies is the relative ability to adapt. Compared to plants, reptiles, small mammals, and other members of a historic coastal community, humans are very stubborn. The structures built are meant to be permanent, and living as close to the water’s edge as possible is a precious commodity. With this attitude, sea level rise’s inevitability is difficult to swallow, and even more challenging to prepare for. With climate change accelerating as anthropogenic inputs to atmospheric greenhouse gases exponentially increase, sea level rise is something that is certain in the present and far-reaching future. On the west coast of the United States, a steep continental shelf provides protection for the coastline in comparison to the shallow sloping continental shelf on the east coast. However, this does not mean that no effects will be felt. A projected one-foot rise in sea level will affect the west coast by at least the year 2020, and conservative approximations place at least a six-foot increase by the year 2100 (Surging Seas, 2014). With this information, it is possible to plan for the next 50-75 years of sea level rise, which will mostly affect low-lying areas along the coast of California. As governor of this state holding the responsibility to further sustainable development and protect current and future generations, a statewide comprehensive plan will be implemented that includes provisions for restricting development in at-risk areas, relocation of affected peoples, adopting strategies of a water-based community, analyzing the topography of the coastline, switching to renewable energy sources, and educating the public. These actions will promote letting nature take its course, while reducing contributions to the issue of climate change.

As demonstrated above, major coastal communities are at risk in both the short term and long term events of sea level rise. The Bay area is most at risk, area-wise, as well as population-wise: most of the population lives on the coastline in CA, so area estimates encompass a far greater percentage of the total population.

Residential and Commercial Uses and Development

The restriction of development in at-risk coastal areas is not a new concept, by any means. In Lucas v. Southern Carolina Coastal Council, a property owner attempted to build on land that would be compromised with the coming storms and was not allowed the permits by the regulatory agency. That specific precedent aside, this case is one example out of many highlighting the risk of property ownership on the coastline. Another example is in Florida, as new developments are required to account for at least 30 years of sea level rise in their construction (Beatley, 1994). Some states regulate construction in relationship to the last line of vegetation, which is affected by both major storms and sea level rise. These three main strategies could be a new foundation for mitigation of sea level rise on the west coast. Coastal development in California is not currently regulated in the same fashion as on the east coast, but starting now with the same procedures will save much money and heartache in the future years of sea level rise. California coastal properties are to be subject to evaluation (in regards to their risk level), and certain areas will be designated as no further development with a 50-year plan for relocation and buyout, detailed below.

New developments in areas of less risk will face stricter regulations in construction, including the requirement of building structures capable of sustaining a 7.0 seismic activity, and they must be located outside out of the 2100 predicted sea level rise regions. The last line of vegetation should be used as a regulatory measure in mitigating the use of the coast by coastal dependent entities. These should be highly adaptive to sea level rise, and have plans for sea level rise relocation, and subsequent relocation of whatever they happen to displace. Details of this are outlined in the next section.

The displacement of communities by sea level rise is a difficult subject, especially in regards to where to relocate coastal populations. Traditionally, this demographic feels entitled to another coastal abode if they are displaced, due to the high price they paid for their subaquatic property in the first place. But there are already people living on the “new coast”, and they feel just as entitled to their location as the displaced peoples. The only approach to the problem that will work is a firm set of rules and agreed-upon liabilities that apply when a coastal property is purchased (Herzog, 2013). Building upon the policies already taken from the regulations on development above, prospective homebuyers should be made fully aware of the risks that come with purchasing a coastal property. All new buyers of coastal property within the projected sea level rise of six feet are required to sign a release of liability when they purchase the property acknowledging the inevitable demise of their property and their subsequent relocation to a specific inland suburb. In lieu of relocation, a homeowner can also choose to take a cash settlement (as in the Lucas case or as outlined in the shoreline management plans by Great Lakes states) if they choose to relocate a significant amount of time (three years or more) before their property is affected (Tribbia, 2008).

Another important aspect of this plan would be the limiting of flood insurance coverage and realization of actual cost. No subsidies to flood insurance will be made, so that development in high-risk areas is discouraged and relocation is encouraged before flooding due to sea level rise becomes an issue. Proposed is an act to limit flood insurance to only homes that are outside of the six-foot sea level rise projection. The limitations would change as time progresses and the sea level rises to new heights. As a standard rule, no flood insurance will be granted if the home is projected to be inundated within the next 50 years of sea level rise according to conservative predictions. These changes are built upon the recent reform to federal flood insurance, and reflect the growing realization that sea level rise is not up for debate (FEMA, 2012).

Industrial Uses and Development

Coastal dependency is unavoidable in key industries, namely ports, transportation, ecological reserves, fishing, and the navy. Ecological reserves and fishing will not necessarily be affected by sea level rise due to their dependence on the actual ocean instead of coastal land. In the areas of the port, transportation infrastructure, and navy uses, relocation further from the coast is not an option. Therefore, it is imperative that these industries formulate a plan for adaptation as sea level rises. Port plans are a good example of what needs to be done regarding sea level rise mitigation. By the end of this four year term, the existing port plans will be required to have strategies for moving operations as sea level rises. Building seawalls and other barriers to the ocean are not recommended as mitigation strategies, because erosion will be worsened by these strategies and the costs to fix the damage will far outweigh moving operations slightly inland or adopting other measures (Heberger, 2011).

In regards to developing new entities on the coast within these industries, a few suggestions in order to protect against future sea level rise damage will help to reduce costs and still allow key industries to develop on the coast. An analysis of offshore topography would be helpful in order to reveal the depth and distance away of the drop-off. In determining this, coastal industries will be able to judge the best place to put their new development: the deeper and closer the drop-off is, the less effect the sea level rise will have on the coastline. Another thing to take into account is the composition of the soil and the depth of the bedrock. If the bedrock is closer to the surface and/or if the soil composition is more rocky and less sand/silt, the development is better protected against erosion, especially from sea level rise. The last element to consider is the depth and extent of the groundwater table below. If it is close to the surface of the development, saltwater intrusion will be an issue and the water table will be forced even closer to the surface – this can promote seasonal and even permanent flooding (Fitzgerald, 2008). These sites are best left to wetland formation, which is detailed below.

Natural Mitigation

Part of restricting development on the coast will include mitigation strategies that will transform the newly appropriated land into a barrier against sea level rise effects. A very important natural protection barrier is the wetland habitat. For instance, the Los Angeles area was once full of wetlands such as the Ballona Creek area and in the Compton/South LA area. Even the LA River was a seasonal river subject to flooding. When the city decided to favor economic growth over preservation of the environment, the city evolved to include mostly impervious surfaces instead of those directly connected to the water table below. Redistricting coastal land to include these historic wetlands will not only be good for the environment, it will protect the inland properties from the direct effects of sea level rise (San Francisco, 2008). Wetlands and marshes are designed to mitigate flooding in times of great water influx without causing major erosion problems, so they are a much better barrier than any man-made structures currently in use. Wetlands are always a good idea in theory, but political barriers make them almost cost-prohibitive currently. In this comprehensive plan, the land for the wetland recreation would come from homeowners that took a cash settlement when their property became within the 2100 boundaries for sea level rise. These properties would become wetlands designed to protect inland entities, and hopefully would encourage surrounding homeowners to do the same, or adopt some of the same strategies. For example, the homeowners could grow some of the plants common to wetlands, such as watergrass, smartweed, swamp timothy, hardstem bulrush, and cattails (Smith, 1994). These wetlands would become public parks, just as in the bay area between Oakland and Berkeley. This way, the public will be involved in the mitigation of sea level rise, an important part of raising awareness and increasing the education of citizens (detailed below).

In adapting to sea level rise, wetland creation is only one possible mitigation strategy to be combined with a number of others. Most other things to consider require the transformation of coastal uses currently, even abandoning some. For example, marinas are very susceptible to sea level rise. In the event of even a one-foot sea level rise, most of the marina would be underwater or structurally compromised. Current strategies such as jetties, seawalls, levy systems, and other permanent structures should see no new construction. These tend to create silt build-up behind walls and promote erosion around the formation, which will further the detrimental effects of sea level rise (Herzog, 2013). Existing structures will be left in place so that benthic sea life will see the least amount of disturbance.

Energy Consumption and Renewables

Although indirectly in most cases, energy production and consumption will be greatly influenced by sea level rise. Most notably, power plants on the coast (such as San Onofre) will be endangered with projected sea level rise. Most power plants that require coastal placement are for nuclear energy production. This plan proposes a required 40% reduction in non-renewable energy sources statewide, with a focus on coastal entities, by the year 2100. Offshore and inland wind turbines and solar panels will replace these energy sources for household and commercial use. It is not realistic to see a switch to a two-way energy infrastructure in the length of the term, but hopefully that will be considered a goal in future legislation (US Department of State, 2014). By relying more on wind for large-scale energy use and solar panels for household and small commercial uses, energy consumption will be far less centralized and take pressure off of power plants located on the coast so that they can be slowly decommissioned as sea level rise endangers their operations.

In the beginning stages of switching to renewable energy sources, subsidies will be offered for entities purchasing solar or wind systems for personal or commercial use (just as they are currently). The funds for these subsidies will come from the sale of excess energy to neighboring states from the wind turbines and from the savings from reducing dependence on foreign oil and out-of-state coal production. The initial cost of building the infrastructure for these renewable energy sources will be significant initially, but will be paid off in the long term. The cost of implementation has decreased by 80% since 1980 and is still decreasing dramatically (US Department of State, 2014). There is little maintenance involved with wind turbines, and they can protect against energy outages, something that could come with sea level rise if power plants on the coast are compromised while still supplying the majority of energy to urban users.


The most important aspect of this comprehensive plan involves informing the residents and general public about the implications of sea level rise. In order to accomplish this, biannual public meetings will be held to discuss the current rate of sea level rise and the tangible effects it will have on the community. Part of these meetings will include an overview of the wetland parks proposed for creation as well as a tour of the site (if it is within walking distance). Incentives will be provided for attending the meetings, namely discounts on renewable energy infrastructure for a personal household.

Education at the primary and secondary school level will be instrumental in maintaining climate change awareness in future generations. A section in fourth grade, seventh grade, and tenth grade science curriculum will be devoted to learning about climate change in an interactive way. The suggested curriculum (only mandated in charter schools, due to lack of funding in most schools – hopefully this will be addressed with the next budget overview) will be centered on field trips and interactive learning in the classroom with climate change and ecosystem models built by the students.

Plan B – Experimental Living Situations

In every great plan, there is an alternative. Although this solution would only apply to a niche market, the application of underwater dwellings is intriguing in the face of imminent sea level rise. The Aquarius, owned by NOAA and operated by the Florida International University, is an extreme example of underwater living. All inhabitants are subject to the saturation of their tissues at depth and can live in the laboratory for extended periods of time while conducting their research. The facility is in complete communication with mainland operations. Although it is a laboratory and meant for research, its main principles could be applied to permanent civilian living at sea.

Obviously an underwater facility for citizens would be closer to the surface to minimize the risk of decompression illness, and would include a garden atop the buoy to provide sustenance for the inhabitants. Waste would be compacted and partially used for composting in said garden. A small-scale netted fish farm could be attached to the dwelling for protein supplementation to the diet. Power could be supplied by either wind turbines or a nuclear reactor within the containment, much like a submarine. Communities of these mobile underwater pods could be located directly off of the coast and ease the housing pressures present on land with the sea level rise taking away space to live. They could easily be connected above or below the water, and even to the mainland, to facilitate easy commutes to work. Some pods could even replace skyscrapers for nondescript office use. They would be self-contained and a completely voluntary project, but may represent the living standard of the future if climate change is not mitigated properly in the current generation. The moral of this story is to make sure the adaptation to sea level rise is successful on land so that communities are not given subaquatic living as their only option.


There are many options available for the mitigation of sea level rise, but they must be enacted as soon as possible. Although sea level rise is a gradual process that does not seem terribly detrimental to coastal communities in the short term, long-term effects are devastating and can result in the loss of industry, economic growth, and even lives. This is the reason that a comprehensive plan is proposed to be enacted during this term to help mitigate the effects of sea level rise. This plan will include provisions for both household and industrial changes, natural mitigation, integration of renewable energy, education of the public, and even other alternatives if needed. Sea level rise is a serious issue that will plague coastal communities for centuries even after the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Putting policies into place that will better prepare the public for changes in infrastructure and landscape will ease the worries and set this state up for a financially stable future.


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