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Look No Further Than OC For a Coastal Crisis

Look No Further Than OC For a Coastal Crisis

February 18, 2022
By Dr. Michael A. (Mike) Moodian

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report this week that sounds the alarm for potentially dire circumstances in U.S. coastal communities. Some of the report’s major takeaways are as follows:

  1. The administration projects that sea levels will rise an average of 10-12 inches during the next 30 years.
  2. This will result in flooding that is far more damaging, with the flooding’s frequency occurring at 10 times the rate that it occurs now.
  3. Curbing carbon emissions can reduce the amount of sea-level rise. An inability to do so could cause an additional 1.5-5 feet (totaling 3.5-7 feet) of sea-level rise by 2100.

The implications for property, coastal economies, and overall life in coastal towns is incalculable. This is especially the case in California, a state in which two-thirds of our residents live in coastal counties, and the coastal economy is responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars in wages and close to $2 trillion in GDP.

During the past year, I worked on a documentary—“Coastal Crisis” (debuting Sunday, February 20, at 3:30 p.m. on KDOC-TV)—that explores the causes of coastal erosion and the effects of sea-level rise on California’s coastal communities. What is striking is that one needs to look no further than Orange County to find a dilemma that residents and policy makers face now and in the coming decades.

Balboa Island

Take Balboa Island in Newport Beach as one example. The isle—which real-estate baron William Collins developed too low in the early 1900s—perpetually falls victim to flooding during storm seasons and high tides. This issue has become more severe as sea levels have risen.

Here is footage from July 2020.

Check out this disaster from December 2018.

To address this, officials increased the island’s seawall height by nine inches, and who knows, they might even need to raise it higher one day. Imagine the view for those Balboa residents who look out their first-floor windows years from now.

The Balboa Island seawall. Note the original seawall and the nine-inch extension. (Credit: Michael A. Moodian)

What does the future hold for Balboa Island if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s projections hold true in the coming decades?

Anne C. Mulkern once wrote about potentially raising the island, but that solution is impractical and extremely costly.

In short, Balboa is a mess.

Capistrano Beach

Capistrano Beach—a town with a glamorous history—is another example. This was home to the Capistrano Beach Club in the 1920s, and it has been the locals’ favorite spot for decades.

Those of us who grew up in South Orange County remember what Capo Beach once was. The thriving beach off Pacific Coast Highway used to be alive with firepits, a boardwalk, and one of south county’s two beachside basketball courts.

It looks like a postapocalyptic scene from a “Mad Max” film today.

Capistrano Beach
Capistrano Beach Credit: Michael A. Moodian

The firepits, the basketball court, the boardwalk, palm trees…all are gone, victims of severe flooding. As USC’sMaile McCann and Melodie Grubbs wrote in a 2020report, “As this beach continues to be threatened by high tides, powerful waves, and rising seas, the community grapples with how to preserve their historic beach while adapting to the challenges of climate change.”

Rising sea levels are one part of the equation in Capo Beach. Development, depleting sand supplies, and El Niño seasons have impacted dramatically the popular beach.

Addressing This

These are just two examples, but they are indicative of what coastal communities throughout the western and eastern portions of the U.S. are facing. Two solutions that policy makers consider in responding to flooding are building seawalls and managed retreat, a process in which structures are physically moved inland.

Seawalls can be effective, but armoring the coast upsets surfers and organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation because it results in the loss of beach. Managed retreat, meanwhile, is very costly.

Living shorelines, such as the one in Cardiff, can be successful, but the bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the threats from rising sea levels and coastal erosion. What is most distressing is that the problem will only worsen, especially given that our world is nowhere near where it needs to be in efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

I tend to be an optimist, but after spending a year working on this project and researching this firsthand in California, I wonder openly if there is hope.

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