Opinion: Sea level rise will be disastrous for San Diego if we don’t address it now

Padilla is the chair of the California Coastal Commission and Chula Vista Councilman, District Three, and lives in Chula Vista. Brownsey is the Vice Chair of the Coastal Commission and lives at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The coast is meaningful to all Californians, for those who are privileged to live by the coast, and for everyone who enjoys the coast as a refuge from hot weather or as a place to celebrate a special day or weekend. California’s coastline is unique in this country because of the protection that voters enacted 50 years ago to ensure that our coastal resources remain accessible to all.

But there is a pervasive and existential threat to our coastal future: sea level rise. As chair and vice chair of the Coastal Commission, every month we see the threats to our state when we review local coastal plans, proposed permits for homes and businesses, and critical infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plants, utilities and roads. We review the hazard and flood maps for these projects to ensure that any development is safe from hazards for the owner as well as the community at large. If public facilities like water treatment plants or utilities or roads are flooded and damaged, daily life becomes a struggle.

Building resilient communities requires a realistic and pragmatic embrace of a changing coast. All of us must now look at the future impacts of a changing coastline. We must structure our review and plans not only for what may happen 20 or 50 years in the future, but for what is happening now during ultra-high king tides or the next big storm. It means considering a range of solutions for protecting beaches, harbors and shoreline communities. The action or inaction of our state leaders will determine whether we embrace this new coastal future or scramble to respond to predictable hazards.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, has authored a number of coastal protection bills. Chief among them is this year’s Senate Bill 1, which modernizes the Coastal Act by specifically stating that sea level rise is a hazard that is required to be addressed. The bill also establishes a collaborative of Coastal Zone Management agencies under the Ocean Protection Council to coordinate the state and local responses to coastal resiliency projects. This measure is currently on the governor’s desk.

Further, Atkins has actively supported the commission’s activities to assist local governments in their planning efforts to update their coastal plans. The commission does this through a number of activities, and two deserve mention. First is the commission’s local government grant program, which provides technical assistance from scientists and other experts, as well as cash grants to local governments in order to hire staff or consultants. Commission staff provide updated hazard and flood maps to aid these communities in understanding and planning for the impact of rising ground water and seas. This year, the commission received $30 million to be spent over five years for this important grant program due to the leadership and support of Atkins.

Second, the commission recently released the draft report: “Critical Infrastructure at Risk: Sea Level Rise Planning Guidance for California’s Coastline,” which is out for public comment. Atkins supported the purpose of the report to serve as a comprehensive guidebook to assist local shoreline communities like San Diego with essential planning and adaptation for critical infrastructure. Currently, San Diego is assessing beach nourishment projects to protect its beaches from the erosion occurring due to rising seas. This month, the commission approved the reconstruction of the San Diego Airport terminals, which included comprehensive climate elements and addressed any potential sea level rise impacts. Another example of a critical infrastructure project is the railway on the crumbling cliffs in Del Mar that have been weakened due to wave uprush during storms. The costs will be billions of dollars and the timeline for construction to completion will be decades. The Del Mar railroad project is a direct result of sea level rise. Solving this will take extraordinary planning and coordination by local, regional and state governments, and community organizations.

Sea level rise will potentially result in billions, if not trillions, of dollars in damage if we do not plan now. But in communities like San Diego, there are state and local leaders who acknowledge the challenges and embrace planning and building resilient communities.