Water, Water Everywhere State and local cities tackle challenges of sea level rise

Photos by Joe Livernois

By Susan Landry

Rising sea levels caused by climate change are prompting the city of Monterey to prepare for a worst-case scenario, which could include waves flooding Cannery Row, wreckage of underground infrastructure and threats to our protected wildlife areas.

Over the next two decades, California will face costs of approximately $22 billion to protect its coastal infrastructure from rising sea levels, according to a new study released by the Center for Climate Integrity. In Monterey alone, costs are estimated to exceed $74 million by 2040. In the neighboring city of Santa Cruz, that number jumps to $96.9 million. 

While these numbers are staggering, this is far from a doomsday scenario, according to Sverre Leroy, lead analyst and climate scientist for the Center for Climate Integrity, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “We wanted our study to be conservative. This is not a worst case scenario,” said Leroy during a phone interview, “You are guaranteed to have to pay this much money.”  

Rather than a “business as usual” model, the study bases its assessments on a more optimistic 4.5 RCP model, which assumes carbon emissions will peak in 2050, then drastically decrease over a span of 30 years until finally stabilizing at about half of the emissions levels from the year 2000. 

“There is still a chance that we could meet the standards of RCP 4.5. We’re currently off that trajectory, but it could happen,” Leroy explained. 

The study focused exclusively on the costs of protecting public infrastructure like roads and bridges from rising sea levels, excluding any costs to private property or public wildlife reserves. Even with these modest predictions, the County of Monterey could be on the hook for over $628 million by 2040. That’s more than 40 percent of the county’s entire 2019 budget. In Santa Cruz County, costs are estimated to surpass $758 million.

“There are many steps that have been taken in the city with the sea level rise considerations,” said Monterey Councilmember Ed Smith via email. 

In 2015, the city of Monterey received a $250,000 grant from the state Coastal Commission to research impacts of rising sea levels and update its Local Coastal Program accordingly. 

Unlike the Center for Climate Integrity’s study, Monterey is planning for a “worst-case scenario,” in which sea levels could rise 62.6 inches by 2100, based on projections from the National Research Council for the South Cape of Mendocino. 

By comparison, cost projections in the Center for Climate Integrity’s study account for about 28 inches of sea level rise by 2100. These few feet matter, as the number of structures in Monterey vulnerable to flooding “escalate substantially” between two and five feet of sea level rise. 

“If the predictions are true, it’s going to be a big issue, by the end of the century and probably before,” said Elizabeth Caraker, the principal planner and housing and community development manager for Monterey.

Right now, Del Monte Avenue and the Recreation Trail are considered Monterey’s most vulnerable areas. By 2100, the city assesses that 319 structures will be susceptible to routine flooding under the five-foot rise model. This would also expose Monterey’s water supply system to coastal erosion, threatening the integrity of its pipes, valves and hydrants. 

The city aimed to complete the Local Coastal Program update by the Spring of 2017, according to its website. Now, more than two years later, the plan has yet to be released and no definitive defense projects or budgets have been set forth. 

Scientists from the Center for Climate Integrity are warning that we may not have the luxury to wait. “We’re talking about things that have to be built within the next decade to try and offset these impacts that are anticipated by 2040 … The timeline is right now,” said Paul Chinowsky, engineer and director of the environmental design program at the University of Colorado’s college of engineering and the lead scientist and engineer for the study. 

The Center for Climate Integrity’s study calculated impact costs based on the budget necessary to build sea walls along every mile of coastline in need of protection. The scientists chose this model as a “yardstick” to gather consistent numbers across the country, but they are the first to point out that sea walls won’t work everywhere.

“You can’t put a concrete wall on top of a sand dune,” said Leroy. “There are many, many different types of protection that we can use.” 

Because Monterey’s beaches are especially sensitive to erosion, the city is looking into beach nourishment as another protection option. Beach nourishment involves adding sand to places where it has eroded, or, in other words, literally bringing sand to the beach. 

In another step towards curbing erosion, the CEMEX sand mining plant reached an agreement with the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission to close its sand-mining operations by 2020, according to reporting by the Monterey Herald

Meanwhile, Monterey’s surrounding towns are facing daunting challenges of their own. “We see a lot about places like New York, places like Miami, but what are we going to do with these very small communities that have very large costs?” said Chinowsky.

In Moss Landing, costs for protection are predicted to rise over $85 million by 2040, or about $1.5 million per capita.

“There’s a fiscal tidal wave building along America’s coast,” said Skip Stiles, the Executive director of Wetlands Watch in Norfolk, Virginia. 

So, with looming costs and a dearth of funds available, the question is — who will foot the bill? As it stands, taxpayers are set to bear the entire cost for protection against sea level rise. But, the authors of the study believe that oil companies should step up, too.

“There’s no way that we can pay for all of this, that communities can pay for this … The federal funds are simply inadequate unless polluters pay their fair share,” said Richard Wiles, the executive director for the Center for Climate Integrity. 

The Center dedicates an entire website to this idea, citing evidence that big oil and gas companies like Exxon knew their products could cause climate change as early as the 1960s, but chose to ignore the potential consequences and instead ran a 30-year denial campaign.

“I think that creates a liability on the part of those companies very similar to the way tobacco was held accountable or the opioid industry is being held accountable … for significant portions of the damages, if not all of the damages that their products cause,” Wiles said. 

It’s unclear how likely this is, but groundwork is already being laid with climate cost recovery cases under way in eight California communities including Santa Cruz County, Imperial Beach, San Mateo County, San Francisco, and Oakland. 

To read the Center for Climate Integrity’s full study, visit the website at http://climatecosts2040.org.

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Susan Landry

About Susan Landry

Susan Landry is a freelance student journalist currently living in Capitola. She loves plants, rock climbing, cooking, and almost anything to do with the outdoors.