7.5-foot waves crash into La Jolla cliffs on the first day of King Tides in November. Photo by Chris Stone

I didn’t see the ocean until I was 18 years old. That late start didn’t stop me from falling in love with the sea, a love I have pursued in earnest ever since I moved to San Diego.

Here in our community, and in communities throughout California, warming waters and rising sea levels threaten both the coast we love and the people and businesses that are located there. Predictions are, that left unchecked, sea level rise will cause billions of dollars in damage in California and disrupt countless lives. 

I introduced Senate Bill 1, the Sea Level Rise Mitigation and Adaptation Act, to help California communities protect against the loss of life, economic harm, and environmental damage caused by rising sea levels due to global warming.

Funding for implementation is included in Senate Bill 45, a bond act that would provide $970 million for coastal protection and restoration, and specifies that $100 million per year would be allocated to this effort. The bill passed the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water in a 7-2 vote on March 16.

Named for the iconic coastline highway that gifts us magnificent views of the Pacific, SB 1 is designed to unite local, regional and state governments and agencies to share the responsibility to plan and adapt for rising seas when developing housing, transportation, and other vital infrastructure. Specifically, SB 1:

  • Directs the California Coastal Commission to take into account sea level rise in planning, development and mitigation efforts.
  • Establishes an inter-agency collaborative jointly overseen by the secretaries of the California Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resources Agency to provide local and regional planning and mitigation strategies for sea level rise.
  • Makes public funding available for planning efforts and community outreach to ensure equity in all communities along the coast, including public access.
  • Expands existing grant programs to assist small disadvantaged communities and support greater public and community involvement in planning for the impacts of sea level rise.

The future of California’s coast is in jeopardy. The science is clear—experts are telling us that climate change is here, now—and it’s already wreaking havoc on our economy and vital infrastructure. I rely on science. I trust science.

Annual King Tide flooding events—which bring about the highest tides of the year—give us a glimpse of the future. In Imperial Beach, the tides flood low-lying streets, homes, and businesses. City leaders have turned to science, plus a network of local agencies and partners, to help them adapt and deal with the impact of these rising tides in the community.

According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, even subtle changes in sea level will worsen flooding, leave some coastal areas permanently submerged, foul our freshwater sources near the coast, and make it impossible to provide adequate drainage to some neighborhoods. And that’s by conservative estimates.

A recent study by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that California could experience up to seven feet of sea level rise in less than 80 years. But even half that amount of sea level rise would put San Diego at risk of major economic damage.

Just three feet of sea level rise, combined with a 100‑year storm, would pose a threat to 830 business establishments in San Diego County, with the potential to impact 15,000 jobs, and cause $2 billion in property loss.

We’re already seeing the costs along the Del Mar Bluffs. Coastal erosion has forced the state to spend millions to secure the rail corridor following a series of collapses over the last few years. Residents and officials are increasingly concerned about the stability of the railroad tracks that link San Diego and Los Angeles—the second busiest commuter rail corridor in the nation.

We cannot wait another year to begin to take action. Here in San Diego, which is home to a large number of coastal military installations and tourist destinations, I am particularly aware of how the dangers from sea level rise threaten those vital sectors. If we don’t act now, taxpayers, homeowners, and businesses will be on the hook for massive losses and expenses in just a few short years.

SB 1 gives us better tools to tackle this imminent threat to our coastal communities, and opens the door to investment in climate resilience. It will help protect our communities and ensure California can withstand the rising tides, and the challenges that come with them.

In the overall course of addressing climate change, the focus on sea level rise may have a gotten a late start. But then, as now, this absolutely mesmerized 18-year-old could tell you—a late start is better than never when it comes to appreciating—and protecting—our ocean and our coast. 

Toni G. Atkins is President Pro Tempore of the California Senate, where she represents the 39th District in coastal San Diego County.

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