February 14, 2017

Story: The Next Chapter in Coastal Adaptation

Winter storms in 2016 brought large swells and heavy rains to coastal California, and often coincided with extremely high king tides. Images of flooded coastal trails and roadways, and collapsing seaside cliffs during these events provided a stark reminder that coastal communities are already experiencing the impacts of rising sea levels. The Center for Ocean Solutions (COS) is working with resource managers and planners around the state to identify and highlight the ways that coastal habitats, such as wetlands and sand dunes, can mitigate against the effects of sea level rise and help reduce the vulnerability of the state’s coastline. Our ultimate goal is to support decision-makers in their efforts to manage coastal resources in a changing climate, so they are better able to respond and adapt to increasingly hazardous events as we enter a future facing climate change.

COS initiated this effort in 2010 by bridging climate science and coastal planning in Monterey Bay. With funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we partnered with the Natural Capital Project to connect our “ocean and coastal science to policy” experience with their “ecosystem services science in decision making” toolset to aid coastal adaptation planning at a local scale. We analyzed the role of coastal habitats in buffering and reducing the exposure of critical water infrastructure to sea level rise through the Integrated Regional Water Management Planning process in the Monterey Bay, with the intention of scaling up the “lessons learned” from this work to broader audiences and other geographies.

Building from that experience, we expanded our focal geography from Monterey Bay to the central and north coasts and shifted the decision context from water management to local coastal planning. We partnered with four counties (Monterey, Santa Cruz, Marin, and Sonoma) to provide similar analyses regarding the protective role of coastal habitats as well as the other beneficial ecosystem services they provide. In addition, we distilled complex coastal adaptation policy questions becoming increasingly relevant for local management.

Work with these counties concluded last year, and lessons learned will help inform our current and future climate adaptation work. The coastal planning audience and efforts in California have significantly expanded through an injection of funding at the state level to better understand the most vulnerable areas of the coastline. With this expansion in interest and need comes the next set of hurdles. Currently, coastal communities have a stronger understanding of where their coastlines are most exposed. Yet, they have limited capabilities and capacity to define and implement legally defensible strategies.

COS is now focused on this disparity as we scale up from local planning along the central and north coasts to statewide prioritization of adaptation strategies throughout California. Our coastal adaptation project team recently traveled to scout highly vulnerable areas along the coast and met with regional planners to better understand the major policy approaches they are considering and the challenges they face.

Through this approach, we are collecting a wealth of knowledge about new policy barriers as well as the best available legal strategies to address them. Ultimately, the resources we collect, distill, and share, will help planners and resource managers throughout the state pursue and implement strategies that foster a resilient coastline for future generations.

California is fertile ground for progressive, environmentally minded actions that can proliferate throughout the nation and beyond. The center’s coastal climate adaptation work echoes that model. As we look toward the future, the center will continue this work and build upon the lessons learned from this long-term investment, which will in turn help inform broader coastal adaptation decisions at the federal and international levels.