Pace of infrastructure planning for coastal flooding a countdown to disaster

A few weeks ago, San Diego coastal cities were given a stark reminder of the threat to public safety and our $15 billion a year tourism industry by increasing tides and coastal flooding.  With this problem becoming more severe, year after year, the lack of substantive coastal infrastructure planning can become a countdown to disaster.

The latest combination of high astronomical tides and elevated surf caused strong rip currents and some flooding at low-lying areas along beaches.  Known as king tides, they are expected to return to our coastline Jan. 19 through Jan. 21 and Feb. 17 through Feb. 19.  They have become a harbinger of damage to our coastline as we confront increasing sea levels during this century.

The warnings have been clear and consistent.  There have been numerous local studies that show anticipated damage, but the only new infrastructure proposals to deal with rising sea levels in San Diego came from the U.S. Navy.

Last year it submitted a draft proposal to the EPA for 24 military construction projects on Coronado Island that would be constructed over 10 years at a cost of $700 million.

Although it was kicked back for a better assessment of environmental impacts it is an effort not seen in city halls lining our coast.

Although scientists have been reporting increasing sea levels for years, we have only one city, Imperial Beach, currently conducting a beach sea level rise study.  Del Mar has applied for a grant for a similar study, but there is not a combined coastal effort to move beyond studies to actually planning anything.

A 2013 report by the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability clearly outlined what must be done to prepare the San Diego coastline for increasing sea levels.

In their report, however, they noted that many cities in our region lack “even broad-brush qualitative sea level rise vulnerability assessments.” Without those assessments, we are unable to fully explore what is needed to avoid damage to ecosystems, existing infrastructures and our economy.

Still, we seem to have enough data to initiate some infrastructure planning.  City politicians on our coastline need only read “Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy for San Diego Bay” or the San Diego Foundation’s “Regional Wakeup Call.”

These reports say our coastline faces a litany of threats, including not only smaller beaches but some that will completely disappear.  This should be enough to inspire limited plans that can be initiated without vulnerability assessments.

What seems to be lacking is a synergy of purpose between San Diego communities and public pressure for action.

To get some traction on this issue it might help to ask our political leaders to join a local effort to raise awareness about increasing sea levels in our area.  There is an upcoming art project in Mission Beach near the roller coaster at Belmont Park to show the high tide flood line that is anticipated for the year 2050.  The “HighWaterLine” project will be Jan. 19, according to organizers from SanDiego350.  They will be drawing a chalk line along Mission Boulevard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. showing a coastline we will likely face in 35 years. Politicians can stand on the chalk and perhaps better visualize the problem at their feet.

We need to look into the necessity of structures like bridging berms, as part of an overall flood protection system from increased sea levels. Our community has to figure out how to pay for it, perhaps looking at New York City’s “Green Bonds,” which are issued to fund environmental mitigation and sustainability capital projects.  We might also look at catastrophe bonds that cover storm-surge risk.  Lots of projects to keep politicians busy but they need to get to work.

It is well past time for action on this issue.  Climate action plans being produced throughout the county need to more fully address sea level rise, with specific plans for vulnerability assessments. We need to urge coastal city leaders to begin serious infrastructure planning for increased sea levels to mitigate what can be a formidable disaster for our community.

Jeffrey Meyer is a SanDiego350 volunteer. SanDiego350 is an all-volunteer team of San Diegans dedicated to raising awareness, developing leaders, and advocating for climate change action. 

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