California City Begins Plan to Retreat From Rising Sea

There is still a mindset that having to adapt to sea level rise is something future generations will have to cope with.  But the mayor of a small California city is actively pursuing a radical program of managed retreat for his city threatened by rising seas.

Here are some extracts from an article which outline the steps the Mayor of Imperial Beach is taking.  For the full article see here.

“Imperial Beach was founded in 1887, as a summertime haven of cooler weather for California farmers, laborers and landowners. Today, it has more than 26,000 people, about half of them Latinos, living on a postage stamp of 4.5 square miles.


The Mayor – Serge Dedina wanted the people of Imperial Beach to confront the reality of sea-level rise head-on.

There are only three possible responses to rising seas –

  • build  a barrier, armor the coast with levees and seawalls, elevate land,
  • create “living shorelines” to absorb flooding and slow erosion, or
  • retreat.

This last strategy, “managed retreat,” “is a political quagmire. It involves tremendous legal and equity issues, because not all property owners are willing sellers. And in many places, shoreline communities are already disadvantaged and lack the adaptive capacity to relocate.”

It is into this quagmire that Dedina has decided to wade.

Dedina does not see a future in beach nourishment with sand.   His city, he believes, will have to do what was once unthinkable: It will have to retreat. Managed retreat represents a planned move away from the coast, allowing the beach to erode for the forces of nature to take over. This, of course, is a gargantuan task. How does a city take all the homes and businesses along its coast and relocate them inland? It has never been done in the Western U.S. before, certainly not on the scale that would be needed — even for a city as small as Imperial Beach.

The adaptation measure isn’t solely Dedina’s idea. Over the past decade, it’s become an important statewide initiative, championed by the California Coastal Commission and the Surfrider Foundation, which have been proposing state laws and coastal development policies designed to make owning and maintaining vulnerable oceanfront properties cost-prohibitive. Some of those new policies ban all new development within 80 or 90 feet of a bluff’s edge, waive a city’s right to build seawalls, and allow public access to open beaches over private coastal property.

What comes next, however, is still something of a mystery. With a city budget of $19 million, Imperial Beach simply can’t afford to move. A retreat of three blocks would cost upwards of $150 million. Still, Dedina’s decision is straight-up revolutionary. It goes directly against the American principle of preserving private property at all costs, especially along the beachfront, where homes can be worth twice as much as their landlocked counterparts. It also represents an unusually humble response to the forces of nature, one that admits that we need to deal with the impacts of climate change, to quit fighting the surging waves that we ourselves unleashed.

Dedina took office and made the city’s first climate adaptation plan a priority.

The latest projection by the Union of Concerned Scientists lays out a scary scenario, particularly for homeowners: Persistent flooding will lower property prices in some areas, while flood insurance premiums will rise. If insurers refuse to cover risky properties, the state will have to become an insurer of last resort. At least 100,000 beachfront homeowners across California face the risk of chronic flooding or worse by the end of this century. As its real estate values decrease, a city’s property tax base, which funds infrastructure, schools and climate-adaptation measures, will also shrink.

Given this, managed retreat makes a lot of sense.

But there are no solid plans yet for an eventual move inland. The money is not there. And city officials haven’t had a lot of conversations about this with homeowners yet.

“It’s very clear, in the long term, there really isn’t any other strategy that will work,” Dedina told me. “That’s something that people in the future are going to deal with, but we’re going to have to set the framework for that now.”