Framework for sea level rise policy in development

Parimal M. Rohit

STATEWIDE — A draft plan to complement the state’s efforts to address predicted sea level rise could soon become official if the California Coastal Commission adopts a guidance document on the topic at its August meeting in Chula Vista.

The commission’s Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance document, if adopted, aims to assist state, regional and local government agencies in addressing the prediction of rising water marks up and down California’s coast between now and 2100. Commission staff pointed out the document would not establish a mandate for policy making but instead help determine the parameters of how policymakers can best plan a response to predicted sea level response.

“Climate change is happening now,” the executive summary of the policy guidance document frankly stated. “Rapidly melting ice caps, rising sea levels, floods, extreme heat waves, droughts, and fires are just a few of the effects of climate change. These effects are having profound impacts on our coast and are changing coastal management planning and decision making at global, national, state, regional, local, and individual scales.”

Sea levels could rise between 17 and 66 inches between Cape Mendocino and Imperial Beach within the next 85 years, the National Research Council (NRC) predicted. The Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance document added the average global temperature increased by 1.4 degrees in the past 100 years, with the world’s sea levels increasing by 7 to 8 inches, on average, within the same time frame.

Rising sea levels could threaten California’s coastal resources, the commission stated in its policy guidance document. Some of the threatened coastal resources include coastal beach access and recreation, habitats and scenic resources. The commission protects and regulates such resources through the state’s Coastal Act.

Commission staff stated California could suffer dire consequences if the Coastal Act is not updated to help state, regional and local government agencies establish protective policies.

“While the California coast regularly experiences erosion, flooding, and significant storm events, sea level rise will exacerbate these natural forces, leading to significant social, environmental, and economic impacts,” the policy guidance document stated.

Accordingly, the Coastal Commission hopes its Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance document will help city and county governments draft Local Coastal Programs (LCP) to better address predicted sea level rise.

“One of the commission’s priority goals is to coordinate with local governments to complete and update LCPs in a manner that adequately addresses sea level rise and reflects the recommendations in this guidance,” commission staff stated in the policy guidance document. The framework of the commission’s policy guidance uses science-based decision-making, agency coordination and public participation to help develop mandated responses to sea level rise.

Included in the policy guidance document are suggested frameworks of how local agencies can factor predicted sea level rise into LCPs or Coastal Development Permits (CDP).

For example, a city council seeking an LCP approval by the Coastal Commission could rely upon the best available science to forecast whether any sea level rise predictions are relevant to a particular planning area, identify potential impacts such as beach erosion or flood zones, assess risks, establish adaptation measures and, if the LCP permit is approved, implement and monitor the plan.

Similarly, a government agency addressing sea level rise through a CDP could establish a range of how rising coastal waters would impact a proposed project and rely upon locally-relevant projections to determine site-specific hazards. Further, the local council or board would have to determine how the project might impact coastal resources over time, such as whether public access to the ocean’s recreational features would be negatively impacted. Once the information is gathered and the risk assessed, local or regional officials would have to identify alternatives to avoid negative impacts on coastal resources and minimize risks to the project.

“Proactive steps are needed to prepare for sea level rise and to protect the coastal economy, California livelihoods, and coastal resources and the ecosystem services they provide,” commission staff said. “The magnitude of the challenge is clear – not only might the impacts of sea level rise be severe, the costs and time associated with planning for them can be daunting.”

The Coastal Commission cited a pair of reports claiming more than 21 million people lived in one of California’s coastal counties and supported a $40 billion coastal and ocean economy.

“Many aspects of the coastal economy, as well as California’s broader economy, are at risk from sea level rise,” commission staff stated, adding ocean recreational activities, marinas, residences and other infrastructure are directly impacted by forecasted sea level rise.

The commission’s Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance document is 285 pages in length and organized into nine chapters and seven appendices focusing on methods to address sea level rise, best available science, consequences, adaptation strategies, forecasts, funding opportunities and key resources. Visit to view the guidance document.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order in 2008 requiring state agencies to factor sea level rise predictions into its planning projects. His successor, Gov. Jerry Brown, issued a broad order to reduce greenhouse gas levels in April.

The Coastal Commission is expected to continue its discussion of the Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance document during its Aug. 12-14 meetings at Chula Vista’s council chambers in City Hall (276 Fourth Ave.).

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