December 4, 2012 - From the December, 2012 issue

WWLA? Is Superstorm Sandy A Wakeup Call for California’s Coast?

In a recent installment of Which Way LA?, Warren Olney asked, in the aftermath of devastating superstorm Sandy, as ocean waters rise and storms get larger, is the California coast ready? Guests included Chad Nelsen, Environmental Director for the Surfrider Foundation, Brian Brennan, Ventura City Councilman and member of the California Costal Commission, David Kiff, City Manager of New Port Beach, and Sean Hecht, executive director of the Environmental Law Center at UCLA. TPR presents the following transcription.


Warren Olney

“It’s a managed retreat project that started back around 1993 when there was a parking lot with a bike path falling into the ocean, and the threat of putting rocks in to save that brought the community to try to come up with a solution. And while its taken almost 15 years to get there, we’re there now, and it’s being held up as a model across the state and across the country of, perhaps, what we can do in the face of sea level rise.” -Brian Brennan

Warren Olney: Students of climate change say that Superstorm Sandy was a wakeup call, not just for New York and New Jersey, but for California as well. And even if climate change is not really caused by greenhouse emissions, there is no doubt that ocean levels are rising. Chad Nelsen is Environmental Director for the Surfrider Foundation. Chad Nelsen, welcome to our program. Tell us a bit about ocean levels rising—I take it this happens all over the world?

Chad Nelsen: Yes, sea levels are rising almost everywhere; it’s sort of a relationship between the land and the sea. In some places the land is rising faster than the sea, but in most places the sea level is rising due to warming, which increases the ocean’s volume, and also from ice melting at the poles.    

You know we’ve seen sea levels rise four to eight inches over the last hundred years in California, and those numbers are expected to double over the next hundred years. That’s going to create challenges along our coast where in California, 86 percent of the coast is already eroding, which is creating a lot of challenges here.

It’s only going to get worse, and if we get that 100-year storm, like they did on the East Coast, it could really spell disaster for the coast of California.

Warren Olney: What are the chances of that 100-year storm turning out not to be a 100-year storm but a ten or five-year storm?

Chad Nelsen: That’s the concern. I think Cuomo said it, the 100-year storm is becoming an every-other-year storm on the East Coast. The jury is still out on whether or not increased storminess will occur along the California Coast, but we do know that the storms that we already get, like El Niños that we seem to get about every decade, are going to be a lot worse with sea level rise.

Warren Olney: When you say that levels rose four to eight inches over the last 100 years, and that’s going to double over the next 100 years, those numbers sound kind of small. But the impact, I take it, is likely to be huge?

Chad Nelsen: Yes, it doesn’t take a lot. If we have a 16-inch sea level rise, that would flood the Oakland and SF airports. We already see that when we get a big storm, or a ‘king tide’, which are high tides we get during the winter time. You’ll see roads along the coast and infrastructure flood. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but they’re talking about up to three feet of sea level rise by 2100 in California. That’s a pretty conservative number. If you combine that three feet of sea level rise with one of these big storms, as a Pacific Institute report suggests, that will put 480,000 people in California and $100 billion of infrastructure at risk and could impact a quarter of our existing wetlands and costal habitats.

Warren Olney: What are the principal vulnerable places here near Los Angeles and Santa Monica?

Chad Nelsen: Most of that whole stretch is a low-lying basin, so all the costal communities are at risk, particularly the LA and Long Beach Harbors, which we know are major economic centers that will be at risk of flooding.

Warren Olney: How do you think Superstorm Sandy has affected the conversation here in California?

Chad Nelsen: I think it has had a really significant effect because we’ve known the sea levels are rising for a long time, and the question has become, how much will it rise in the future?    

This is based on climate change models. There’s been a lot of dispute and skepticism about that, but I think that conversation fundamentally changed when we saw what happened on the East Coast.

Warren Olney: What needs to be done in California?

Chad Nelsen: We have some tough choices to make. The first thing we need to do is stay out of harm’s way and not build new developments in places we know are vulnerable.    

The bigger challenge comes when we have to figure out what to do in places we already know are vulnerable today and will be more vulnerable in the future. We’re basically left with three choices: we can either armor the coast with revetments and seawalls, which will harm our public beaches; we can do beach nourishment or beach fill and try to keep pace by putting sand on beaches, which is incredibly expensive; or we can think about relocating our infrastructure, which is also challenging and some would argue politically untenable.

Warren Olney: When you say new development, we do have the Costal Commission which controls development, but are there any communities that have given up on development? I don’t think there are, are there?

Chad Nelsen: It’s not a matter of giving up on development—it’s just a matter of trying to avoid putting development in these vulnerable areas, particularly if it’s important infrastructure, whether that’s utilities or life saving infrastructure.

Warren Olney: All the things you’ve talked about—whether its building up seawalls, or filling in the beaches with sand, which is, as you said, expensive, or relocating infrastructure—require political will. Have we seen much?

Chad Nelsen: Well I think that’s the challenge, and we saw this with Sandy. We tend to be complacent during periods of calm, like we’re in now. We haven’t had one of these large erosion or El Niño events in California for some time, so it’s challenging during these calm periods to generate the political will, and New York and New Jersey had many reports that detailed what was going to happen. And it did. We saw that in Katrina as well. Then it’s really hard to get the political will in the aftermath of these events because the political imperative is to rebuild. We’re just trying to recover from the disaster, so it’s really challenging.

I think that’s the most important thing, to generate the political will. We have the science, and we have the management tools—it’s a matter of getting the political will to put them into practice.

Warren Olney: Brian Brennan is a city councilman in Ventura; he’s also a member of the Costal Commission. Good to have you on our program.    

Brian, Ventura is one of those places that is, in fact, doing something. Tell us what it is.

Brian Brennan: Well, it’s an adaptive reuse of the coastline. It’s a managed retreat project that started back around 1993 when there was a parking lot with a bike path falling into the ocean, and the threat of putting rocks in to save that brought the community to try to come up with a solution. And while its taken almost 15 years to get there, we’re there now, and it’s being held up as a model across the state and across the country of, perhaps, what we can do in the face of sea level rise.

Warren Olney: Tell us why people worried about the rocks to save the parking lot. What was the controversy?

Brian Brennan: The rocks would save the bike path through the parking lot. They have an ability to exacerbate erosion along the beaches. Basically, the sand all goes away in front of the rocks, and you’re left with the rock structure and damp, wet sand. This was happening at Surfer’s Point where the emergency rocks were placed, and it was almost like an augering effect. Just east of where the rocks stopped there was a huge bite into the coastline being caused by exacerbated erosion.

Warren Olney: Describe, then, what managed retreat meant at Surfer’s Point, or what it means now.

Brian Brennan: I think it’s the ability to pull back from the ocean but also making sure you have some natural infrastructure in place—that would be cobble berms and sand. The beaches in Ventura County are fortunate to have two wild rivers—one is Ventura River, which brings cobble to the ocean; the other is Santa Clara River, which carries more sand to the coast than any river in North America. So we have some of the natural ingredients, but due to infrastructure, harbors, and some seawalls and groins, the sand hasn’t been able to get to the places it should.

But all that being said, Surfer’s Point has moved back from the Ocean about 65 feet and has created a dune field in between what is now the road (we have parking along the road) and the ocean. And I would say that the Surfer’s Point Project was the first project to go in front of the Costal Commission back around 2005 that actually had a wave-run-up-line that took into account sea level rise.  

Warren Olney: What took 15 years to accomplish that sounds relatively simple?

Brian Brennan: Exactly what Chad said: political will. That’s where, I think, people would say, “Wait a second.” And beyond political will, I think, would be the premise that Man still thinks he can conquer nature and is unwilling to step back. So that’s why I like to call it “adaptive reuse” of the coastline rather than “managed retreat,” because retreat sounds like you’ve lost.

Warren Olney: So when you say there was no political will, people didn’t want to spend the money to move the bike path in the parking lot?

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Brian Brennan: Not so much. They were just saying, “Hey, drop the rocks. I want to be able to pull up in my car, sit here in my car and look at the water and not have to get out of my car or even walk ten feet—I want to be right here on the edge of the ocean.” It was property that wasn’t actually owned by the city; it was property that the fairgrounds had. But the citizens of Ventura didn’t care who owned it—they just wanted to say, “Fix it!” And some of them didn’t understand that by putting the parking lot where it had already been eroded, there was no way we were going to be able to keep it there. That’s where we worked hard and created a great partnership.

For the second half of the project we’re bringing sand in and now reestablishing dune grass that actually acts as a mitigation and buffer against some of the large storm surges. In fact, in New Jersey, some of the beaches that were nourished in May, just ahead of the summer, saw very little damage from the major surge.

Now what Chad said is true—it’s very expensive to look at beach nourishment as an answer, but it certainly is one of the tools in the right places that we’ll have to start talking about.

Warren Olney: David Kiff is the City Manager of Newport Beach. Good to have you with us David. Yours is another city threatened in the ways that Chad Nelsen described. Tell us what’s going on there.

David Kiff: Well, we have about 30 percent of our residential base—we’re a community of about 84,000 people—about 30% is probably between three and five feet above sea level, and that’s on Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula.

What we’ve been trying to do is work on seawall repair and maintenance instead of adding new seawalls, which is challenging. We are repairing the ones that we do have and, at the same time, raising them. A number are lower than they should be, and we’ve just done some studies that say they should be raised anywhere from a foot and a half to two feet.

Warren Olney: What’s your situation as far as political will is concerned?

David Kiff: The political will is interesting in Newport. We have a fairly conservative electorate, and some folks don’t think that climate change or sea level rise are occurring, or certainly that it’s not caused by man. But there are a lot of other folks who are making the decision to say, “Yes it is happening, and we should be preparing for it.” So that political will part is challenging here, especially if we got in a situation of managed retreat. We’re talking about not just a parking lot—not to minimize your situation Brian—but people’s homes and whether or not you can retreat away from a home. Obviously they’re doing it in New Jersey, but it’s challenging to see how that would work here.

Warren Olney: In some places in New Jersey people’s homes have retreated from them, or gone the other direction into the ocean. Are homes in Newport threatened if there is another big storm here? We’ve had a lot of them in the past, and if they’re going to get bigger, is there already a very seriously problem with homes?

David Kiff: Chad mentioned the king tide. We do have one coming up here on December 13 or so, and if that’s matched with a storm, the high tide plus the storm, we will suffer something significant. Nothing like Sandy, I hope, but you will see overtopping of our seawalls, which we have seen in the past at similar tide events. A big enough storm timed with that would certainly flood a number of homes. It wouldn’t knock them off their foundations, but it would certainly flood a number of them.

Warren Olney: If you’re repairing and maintaining the seawalls that exist, who pays for them and who gets the benefits?

David Kiff: We have a mix in Newport beach. We have a mix of public and private seawalls, and the City is responsible for far less of the overall seawall mileage than the private property owners are. So of the ones that the City is responsible for—the concept is that the city general fund, and also the users of the harbor, would start to pay for that over time.

Warren Olney: So it’s mainly the Harbor Area in Newport that you’re worried about, Balboa Island and the Peninsula there?

David Kiff: That’s correct.

Warren Olney: Let me go back to Chad Nelsen with the Surfrider Foundation. We’ve heard about managed retreat, and we’ve heard about what you referred to earlier as ‘armor’, putting up seawalls. Is that sufficient, given what is likely to happen in the future?

Chad Nelsen: I think it’s not. Those have been the two tactics that we’ve applied in the past hundred years, and I think with what we’re seeing on the East Coast, and what we’re going to eventually see on the West Coast, is that those two strategies will become unsustainable.

There’s been a number of studies and reports in the State of California about adapting to sea level rise over time, and I think it’s clear we’re going to have to figure out how to develop a process to determine where we are going to armor the coast at the cost of our public beaches—places where we’re willing to spend the money and suffer the recreational and ecological impacts of beach fill.

I think that’s the necessity of our future. You know, as Dave makes clear, when you’ve got a row of multimillion-dollar homes along the coast, which is true for much of Southern California, that’s going to be difficult to do. But we’re going to run out of beach sand and run out of money if we don’t start thinking about these things a little differently

Warren Olney: Sean Hecht is the Executive Director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center at the UCLA School of Law, good to have you on our program.
Tell us about some of the legal issues here. It’s not just a matter of political will, but also legality. Are we going to have to make decisions and put them into the law about what we save and what we don’t?

Sean Hecht: Local governments actually already have quite a bit of authority, at least in theory, to accomplish some of these goals. Under the Costal Act, there’s the possibility both for the Costal Commission and for the local governments in their Costal Plans to make decisions that really enable them to be smart about adaptation.

I think that the challenge is that in many cases the law isn’t crystal clear about what the authority is, so governments have to figure out how to address the kind of legal risk they have. Examples of that are, the potential for a private landowner, who believes they’ve been adversely affected by a government decision, to make what’s known as a ‘Takings Claim’, saying that government regulations have caused them to loose some of their property value. These claims actually fairly rarely succeed, but the threat of them is significant, especially since the measure of the compensation that the government would have to pay is the fair market value of the property.

So governments often are reluctant, both for political reasons and because of the perceived legal risk, to make decisions that otherwise might seem sensible.

Warren Onley: There’s sort of an 800-pound gorilla here, it seems to me, and our listeners may have thought of it as well, and that is Malibu. We asked someone from the City of Malibu to come on our program, and they declined. Sean Hecht, what can you tell us about Malibu and whether they are beginning to see the kind of thereat that we’ve seen in Malibu already every time there’s one of those big storms?

Sean Hecht: There are a number of possible threats in a place like Malibu. The one that I tend to highlight is one that people don’t often think about, which is the PCH itself and the vulnerability of the PCH to flooding and storm events. The reason that’s significant is because it’s the only thoroughfare that connects those communities to the coast further south, and it’s certainly the easiest way for people from those communities to get into the city. To me, that presents an example of how it ultimately is public infrastructure that these communities depend on, and I think people often underestimate the value that public infrastructure brings to their communities.

So it’s not just about the individual homeowners, who understandably have purchased their property and believe they’re entitled to the value they get out of it. It’s all of the work, money, and resources that local communities have to put into supporting that. So the vulnerability of the highway is one example of that where it’s sort of a hidden cost to everybody that benefits the homeowners in that area.

It’s equally true that there’s often a tension in a community like Malibu between homeowners and public access to the beach. It’s an example of a situation where the law is actually, I believe, quite clear: there are certain rights that the public has in the beaches, and yet its been very difficult, even under much more mundane conditions than we’re talking about here, for those laws to be properly enforced. So I think it’s going to be very difficult in a community like Malibu to figure out how to protect the public rights on the coastline with all the property value that’s there.

Warren Onley: Chad Nelsen with the Surfrider Foundation, when we’re talking about political will, what about Malibu, where there are so many wealthy and influential people that have houses right on the beach, not just near it? How has the City been doing?

Chad Nelsen: Broad Beach—a stretch of coast that’s been the subject of many beach-access legal battles—recently built a 4000-foot-long revetment along the beach to protect the property after a storm in 2010. There’s no longer any beach in front of that; at high tide it’s wet and dangerous. Now that little neighborhood has created a geologic hazard abetment district, which is a collection to fund beach nourishment and a beach fill project, and they’re talking about a $20-25 million project that the private homeowners are going to fund to put sand on that beach.

Those projects usually don’t last very long, so I think that’s going to become a very expensive proposition, but in the mean time, for the last two-and-a-half-years, the public lost their beach there. They put that seawall in under an emergency permit that didn’t require full vetting by the Costal Commission, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of that in the future. That’s concerning as someone who’s trying to protect the public value of our beaches, which obviously for the State of California are important to the people and also hugely important to our economic wellbeing.  

Warren Olney: David Kiff, will it take a superstorm on the West Coast to finally get people to pay attention and provide the kind of political will it takes for people like yourself to raise the resources and deal with these issues?

David Kiff: I hope not, but I do think we have a moment here to make some progress. I think it’s going to take leadership at the Costal Commission-level with Brian, and with Surfrider and Chad, and each community to have a thoughtful dialogue with the residents here about what happened on the East Coast so we can prepare for that next storm. If we wait for that next storm, we’ve lost way too much.

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