Preparing for Rising Sea Levels

October 27, 2021

Some of the most dramatic effects of climate change are projected to occur along the California coast, where rising sea levels threaten communities, supply chains, and transportation hubs. The Little Hoover Commission examined how California should respond to this threat, along with other climate challenges, in a 2014 study. Recently, findings from a new report by Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists, showcase the continued importance of our study.  

In its report, Climate Central analyzes climate change-induced sea level rise, finding that “cities around the world” – including many in California – “will need to mount globally unprecedented defenses or lose most of their populated areas to unremitting sea level rise lasting hundreds of years.” From the State Capitol Building and the Santa Monica Pier to Googleplex, Hotel Del Coronado, and downtown San Francisco, Climate Central visualizes how the scale of sea level rise due to 1.5°C and 3°C increases in global temperatures could impact these and other iconic locations. While the images are not literal – they do not take existing or planned levees or seawalls into consideration – they serve as a stark reminder of the staggering level oceans could rise without greater action to combat climate change.  

The impact of rising sea levels was a central focus of the Commission’s report Governing California Through Climate Change. Often described as a “slow moving emergency,” sea level rise and more frequent storm surges could dramatically disrupt California’s economy. Ports and airports, railroads, hospitals, power and water treatment plants, neighborhoods, freeways and transit systems along California’s coast are vulnerable to flooding and inundation. And without immense investments to raise and strengthen levees, the Commission found, saltwater intrusion into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could impact freshwater exports to Southern California and harm the agricultural industry of the Central Valley.

One potential impact in particular is likely to create an extraordinary and politically charged challenge that California must address. As sea levels rise, they will begin to effectively “condemn” individual pieces of private property and legally convert them into public lands under California’s Public Trust Doctrine. This Doctrine, enshrined in the state’s constitution, declares that beachfront existing on the seaward side of the mean high tide line as it ebbs and flows is publicly owned and available for public use. And as the mean high tide line moves further inland, private properties along California’s 1,100 miles of coastline will automatically become state property accessible to all Californians. Property values of expensive oceanfront real estate will likely tumble in such an unprecedented scenario, inevitably setting up a legal clash between these property owners and the state.

While the Commission found that some cities, including Santa Barbara, Ventura, Pacifica, and San Francisco, have successfully taken steps to accommodate rising ocean levels at popular beaches and coastal parks, more work must be done at the state level to ensure California is prepared for the legal challenges posed by this threat.

A recommendation from Governing California Through Climate Change will help the state do just that. In its report, the Commission urged California to clarify the impact of sea level rise on the Public Trust Doctrine before property owners start litigating the issue in courtrooms throughout the state. Working together, the Governor, Attorney General, State Lands Commission, Coastal Commission, and public and private coastal interests should create a legal framework in advance of this crisis to prevent litigation and instability. 

Policymakers have taken crucial steps over the years to ramp up the state's response to climate change by enacting other recommendations from the Commission's 2014 report, yet more work must be done to ensure California can effectively respond to rising sea levels. As climate change becomes an ever more alarming threat, the Commission urges policymakers to consider its recommendation to prepare for this coastal challenge.

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