Bird Estuaries and Boardwalks: Quantifying the Costs of Sea Level Rise

Water crashing over rocks

By Jan Lee

Global warming is a major concern for communities along California’s sweeping Pacific coastline. More than 600 miles of western shoreline stretches between the state’s north and south boundaries, pocketed by old-growth forests, carefully preserved beaches and small, historic towns that serve as magnets in California’s thriving tourism industry. The world’s sixth largest economy realized more than $125 billion from tourism in 2016 alone, driven in part by the throngs of tourists that head each year to landmarks like Disneyland in the south and San Francisco’s historic Pier 39 two-thirds of the way up the coast.
No region however, is a more iconic symbol of California’s carefully sheltered tourism industry than Santa Cruz County. Situated barely 90 minutes south of San Francisco and framed on the west by a curve of towering cliffs and dotted by sandy beaches, the county is proof of the fact that small localities can and do have a big economic punch. As the state’s second-smallest county, Santa Cruz reaped $700 million in tourism revenue in 2000 and recorded one million visitors. Its 29 miles of beaches and historic boardwalk were a large part of the county’s draw.

But according to a report published by the Central Coast Wetlands Group at the Moss Landing Marine Labs, those vital resources will be at increasing risk in the decades to come. Sea level rise and climate change will have a greater say not only in how its coastline is affected by storms but in how the county manages its valuable resources.

Increasing storm surge, say the authors of the Santa Cruz Coastal Climate Vulnerability Report, doesn’t just mean that central California beaches will be harder to access, but delicate estuaries, which are key to the county’s agricultural and tourism industries, will be at a higher risk of flooding and degradation.

Cities will also face growing challenges. By 2030, barely a decade from now, more than 800 structures are expected to be at risk from flooding as sea level changes continue to define the county’s urban areas.

Reassessing resiliency in Santa Cruz County
Understanding Santa Cruz’s future weather impacts wasn’t the sole reason for the 115-page report, which looked at virtually every section of the 446 square-mile county. According to Ross Clark, director of the Central Coast Wetlands Group, there was a bigger goal at play: To determine just what it would take to ensure resiliency in a county facing increased storm surge and sea level rise – and just what it would cost to do so.

“The intent of this report was not to provide a doomsday scenario, but to provide an evaluation of what the hazard maps really mean and what are the forces that we will be responding to looking forward so that we can make smart decisions on how to invest our limited resources to adapt,” said Clark, who served as the city of Santa Cruz’s climate change coordinator at the time the report was written.

To get an accurate picture of those impacts, researchers from Environmental Science Associates (ESA) and Revell Coastal as well as a broad consortium of environmental, science, geological and local organizations fanned out across the county. They compiled data and constructed models to show the potential impacts. Then they got to work to determine just what it would take to safeguard Santa Cruz, its natural resources and its urban centers.

The process would be complex – and expensive, said Ross, who pointed out that increasing climate impacts wouldn’t just mean coastal infrastructure like sea walls and other barriers would have to be replaced or upgrade more often, but the way homes were built along Santa Cruz’s prime coastal real estate would likely have to adapt to the climate risks as well.

Houses would have to be built with storm surge in mind. “In short, [they] would have to be taller,” said Clark. Building codes would likely change.

“New designs look at putting most of the electric infrastructure higher in the buildings than as is often [currently] the case in the basement or garage.”

Municipalities will be forced to invest in protections against sea level change and a more robust surf.

In all, said Clark, the cost of bolstering the county’s 10-mile stretch of coastal armoring, reinforcing or replacing roads, railways, streets, culverts and other infrastructure, will be significant. In the next 12 years alone, climate change impacts are expected to cost the county the better part of a half a billion dollars. The cost to private homeowners whose properties lie in the path of these impacts, however, will be much greater: about $1.2 billion.

But the impacts that Santa Cruz and its municipalities face poses another problem: adding reinforcements to protect homes and businesses may mean sandy beaches wash away. And tourists and their vacation budgets will head to other destinations too.

“[We] documented that we would lose significant portions of sandy beaches in the Monterey Bay portion of Santa Cruz County by 2100 if we protect everything in place. Much of the Santa Cruz coastline will transition from beach to breaking waves along the coastline. That has economic ramifications that really haven’t been fully understood. But business owners can understand individually what the loss of tourism and the loss of Santa Cruz as a beach destination would mean,” Clark said.

Assessing the costs: Who pays?
But there’s another issue that ties into Santa Cruz’s climate woes: one that the report didn’t address directly, but has gained increasing attention in California district courts in recent years: Who is responsible for the county’s infrastructure damages and who ultimately should pay for those impacts?

Since 2008, more than seven U.S. communities have launched lawsuits against oil and gas companies, alleging that the high carbon emissions are responsible for the degradation of coastlines and local habitat. The allegations aren’t based on local extrapolations, but on data that ExxonMobil investigated in the 1980s and has been corroborated by scientific studies since that time.

But as communities like Kivalina, Alaska found out, proving that fossil fuel companies are responsible for worsening climate change takes more than data in U.S. courts. The small indigenous community, which is losing its land to sea level changes and storm surf, launched its “nuisance” claim against a group of energy producers in 2008, when third-party global warming research was still in its early stages. Both Kivalina’s complaint in the U.S District Court for the Northern District of California and its subsequent appeal in 2012 were denied.

Since that time, a growing number of California communities have filed suits, including San Francisco and Oakland. Their attempts to pinpoint the responsibility of global warming on oil and gas companies has rested on new research into the cause and origins of global warming, the legitimacy of which was strengthened by the Obama administration’s efforts to limit greenhouse gases in recent years.

But the strategies have also changed. In 2017, Santa Cruz County and its capital city, Santa Cruz, launched separate suits against 29 oil and gas companies. Like San Francisco and Oakland, they asserted that private and public landowners have rights that are abridged when properties are trespassed and damaged by conditions that could have been prevented by a third party’s business decisions.

While Santa Cruz County would not comment on the progress of the suit, Jason Hoppin, the county’s communication manager, did acknowledge that the county and its capital city aren’t alone in their efforts to deal with climate change – or to pressure high carbon emitters like oil and gas extraction companies to take responsibility and change the way they do business.

“Santa Cruz County has unique vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change, but climate change can potentially impact every community,” said Hoppin. “There is an environmental reckoning taking place across the globe, and it is incumbent upon leaders in every community to do what they can to look into the future and see what measures may be needed to protect the life and property of their citizens.

“It’s time to hold the oil and gas companies responsible for their role in climate change. Local residents shouldn’t be only one’s paying for the damage caused by their products,” added Hoppin.

These days there’s also a wider effort by communities to share and collaborate on ways to deal with climate change. According to Clark, several county and nonprofit programs have emerged in recent years to help cities brainstorm and seek feedback on topics like mitigation, adaptation and fiscal challenges. That collaboration is helping to ensure their communities’ future resiliency.

“Managing the California coast can’t be done as individual towns and cities,” said Clark. “It really has to be done as a partnership [with] everyone up and down the coast.”

Posted April 9, 2018 in Vol. 8 No. 4 - July/August 2017