Report: With sea levels on the rise, some West Coast communities must consider ‘managed retreat’

June 22, 2023

*******Source-, Andy Castillo, First Published 08, MAy, 2023

In the next three decades, scientists predict that sea levels could rise between 4 and 8 inches. When combined with climate change-driven extreme weather, this increase poses a serious danger to infrastructure, economic prosperity and the wellbeing of many West Coast cities and counties.

By 2050, for example, an estimated $8 to $10 billion in property is projected to be threatened by rising sea levels in California alone. And currently, the state has the nation’s largest ocean economy, valued at more than $44 billion annually. Without adaptation, the economies, properties and infrastructure of West Coast communities could be put at risk.

“In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, 104,000 existing jobs and the creation of 85,000 new jobs could be directly threatened by SLR in the next 40 years,” reads the report, “Adapting Coastal Cities and Territories to Sea Level Rise in North America—U.S. West Coast,” published last month by the Ocean and Climate Platform, an international climate network of more than 100 organizations. The report stemmed from a workshop hosted by the international climate initiative Sea’ties.

In the face of sea level rise, researchers put forward a number of recommendations that could prepare communities for the impending impact, such as localizing climate information to help administrators address the unique challenges their individual communities face. This means downscaling regional and national information to incorporate local socio-economic realities and curating data to consider site-specific environmental conditions.

“City and county managers and elected officials need information that is readily actionable and relevant to the specificities, challenges and opportunities faced in their areas to design and deploy tailored adaptation strategies,” the report says.

Beyond collecting and disseminating data, American administrators must fundamentally change the way they’re preparing for the future. Instead of a mitigation-first mindset, administrators must evolve to one centered around monitoring and adapting. And rather than reacting to problems as they arise, governments must begin implementing long term strategies that include strategies like “managed retreat, which in some areas may represent a long-term transformative option,” the report says, noting its contention. “Reframing the debate around managed retreat is urgently needed. When anticipated, consented to, and phased, it can yield transformative results for coastal communities in the form of social, health, economic, political, and environmental benefits.”

For those regions that are expected to be affected, there’s no easy or inexpensive solution. According to the report, armoring coastal communities against sea level rise over the next 20 years would cost $400 billion, requiring the construction of more than 50,000 miles of coastal barriers. Managed retreat, or moving people and infrastructure out of harm’s way, also comes with a hefty price tag. Further, some federal managed retreat programs weren’t that successful in the past.

“Since the 1980s, FEMA has offered buyouts for storm-damaged homes to convert them to natural open spaces. This program, intended to incentivize homeowners to relocate in post-disaster recovery, is useful but does not deter individuals from moving to or staying in vulnerable areas,” the report says, citing the booming real estate market in California as an example of its ineffectiveness, “with homes in the areas most at risk recording the greatest increase in value.”

Regardless of the best path forward, all communities should prioritize equity and community in their planning efforts to make sure no one falls through the cracks. About 18% of all Americans expected to be living in areas with a high flood risk by the end of the century fall within the high social vulnerability category.

“Community-driven adaptation implies that communities are empowered and institutionally integrated into all stages of the policymaking process. Building capacity is an essential step in fostering informed community participation and awareness raising campaigns must be attuned to the groups they are intended for, in language and media,” the report says.

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