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California Mandates Coastal Cities Plan for Future Sea-Level Rise

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Waves in a green ocean lap onto a rocky shore with a mobile home park on the edge of the coast.
A mobile home park in Northern California sits just feet from the Pacific Ocean. (Jason Doiy/Getty)

For the first time in California history, all coastal cities, including those in the Bay Area, must plan for sea-level rise, a looming climate impact yet to be fully experienced.

The new law — SB 272 — requires big cities like San Francisco and small towns like Strawberry along Richardson Bay to develop strategies and recommend projects to address future sea-level rise by 2034. While seas have risen only about 8 inches since the 1880s, the ocean and the bay could rise by about a foot by midcentury — thanks mainly to human-caused climate change.

Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) authored the bill recently signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governor vetoed a similar bill last fall, noting budget constraints. Laird said his team worked with Newsom’s office to ensure there are dollars in the budget for local planning on sea-level rise. California’s final budget included $1.1 billion in investments for coastal resilience programs over multiple years.

“There are lots of discussions, and the hope is we have these discussions before it’s a crisis and before these big extreme events happen,” Laird said, referring to significant flooding from storms that sea-level rise could exacerbate.

“The storms that we just had [last winter] changed the equation for people who didn’t even realize they had some of the coming impacts,” he said.

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The law requires local governments to create sea-level rise plans based on the best available science, conduct vulnerability assessments — including for at-risk communities — determine adaptation strategies and sketch out a list of recommended projects with timelines.

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Laird said the new law stops short of declaring exactly where state funding will come from for sea-level rise plans and adaptation projects. But the state will prioritize funding for cities and counties with plans in place, Laird said.

“I expect that there will be pushback in certain places because some people are going to have to come to grips with the reality of the challenge to their homes or businesses,” he said.

A shot of the coastline in California with houses and the bay.
Sea levels along coastlines in the U.S. will rise up to 1 foot by the year 2050, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). (Jason Doiy/Getty Images)

Walking slowly and with too small a stick

The law does not lay out any punishment for cities that don’t comply.

While the bill is an excellent starting point for sea-level rise planning, John Gioia, a supervisor from Contra Costa County, said the law should have come with more of a stick for local governments that don’t comply.

“A bill like this gets the ball rolling,” he said. “We’ll soon realize it’s not fast enough.”

He holds fast to his perspective that the region needs a stronger, central authority on sea-level rise to match the dire consequences of not adequately preparing for rising seas. Currently, the Bay Area is governed by a patchwork quilt of local and state authorities.

“Direct authority gets things done faster and more effectively than voluntary action,” he said. “Given the urgency of this issue in the Bay Area and the speed of development, we need to act now.”

Len Materman, CEO of OneShoreline, San Mateo County’s flood and sea-level rise resiliency district, applauds the bill’s passing but wishes the law went further to include specific requirements for places like airports, hospitals and harbors.

“No local government can address this or most other climate threats, so resilience activities should align protection across multiple jurisdictions,” he said.

The state expects local governments to cooperate. Coastal regulators with the California Coastal Commission and the Bay Conservation Development Commission, or BCDC, have the power to approve or deny plans for adaptation projects and development along the shoreline.

“Sea level is already rising on our shorelines and more is already ‘baked in,’” said Zachary Wasserman, chair of BCDC, in a letter of support for the bill. “The only questions are how fast the oceans will rise and whether or not California will be prepared.”

The agency is creating a regional sea-level rise plan, with a first draft supposedly available by the end of 2024. Larry Goldzband, executive director of BCDC, said the plan is vital because it will cost at least $110 billion for the Bay Area to adapt to mid-century flooding caused by rising sea levels. But if leaders fail to act, the price could be much higher at around $230 billion.

Local governments have until January 2034 to develop sea-level rise plans.

“Everybody now sees that deadline ten years from now and recognizes that this is real,” Goldzband said. “There’s going to be huge amounts of social and economic dislocation due to flooding if we don’t adapt.”

His team plans to follow up with all local governments around the region to ensure they are on board so the Bay Area of tomorrow isn’t overwhelmed by water. The agency is holding community and government meetings across the area to get input on the plan, said Dana Brechwald, assistant planning director for climate adaptation with BCDC.

The new law comes at a perfect time, she said, as the state’s updated sea-level rise standards could come out in the next few months.

“This is a trifecta of initiatives we’ve never seen before,” she said. “I think it’s going to accelerate action throughout the state. We’re excited. This is what we live for.”

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