This fall, Santa Cruz County could become one of the first local governments in the country to take decisive action on sea-level rise by altering permitting rules for residents who want to build seawalls or other forms of armoring around valuable coastal real estate.
But as property owners confront the potential eye-popping costs of warding off rising tides, environmental advocates also warn of a catch-22 scenario. Further armoring the coastline, agencies like the U.S. Geologic Survey and California Coastal Commission have warned, will also speed up the demise of vulnerable landscapes—namely, public beaches—that make the area desirable in the first place.
“You essentially drown the beach or flood the beach,” says Gary Griggs, a UCSC earth sciences professor who has studied the effects of armoring on California beaches.
Still, he says, there are few easy answers to the existential crisis that comes with trying to prepare a beach town for dramatic changes in the coastal environment. Denial is more untenable with each new shattered heat record, and paying millions of dollars for “beach nourishment,” or adding tons of sand back to waning beaches, is another expensive Band-Aid. Retreating from the shoreline and forfeiting billions of dollars in coastal property may be the surest bet, but there are obvious drawbacks.
“The scientists have been dealing with this for a while, but it’s going back to local governments,” Griggs says.
In September, Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin said the Board of Supervisors will wrestle with these questions when they revisit a long process of updating local rules for coastal development.
Among the changes proposed in a 248-page county report released earlier this year are allowing for more armoring within urban areas of the county, establishing new mitigation fees and criteria for geologic monitoring, and shifting financial liability to private property owners in the event of climate-induced damage to homes in hazardous areas.
The result is a “hybrid approach,” the county report says, where rural areas would be prescribed a “managed natural retreat” as tides rise, and urban areas around the city of Santa Cruz would hew toward “conditional accommodation, acceptance of risk, amortization and adaptation.”
“It’s one of the first examples of a county adopting a policy to armor an urban area,” says Dan Carl, a Santa Cruz native and Central Coast district director for the California Coastal Commission. “A lot of people don’t seem to realize that this debate is going on, and this debate will go a long way towards identifying, what is this county gonna look like along the shoreline in both the short and the long term?”
It’s also not just seawalls. At both the city and county level, policymakers are moving beyond years of climate studies to grapple with what to actually do about increasingly immediate risks for the region’s shoreline, water supply and famous agriculture industry.
In addition to the county’s local coastal program update, the city of Santa Cruz is evaluating how to adapt West Cliff Drive to increasingly unavoidable climate impacts, and how to expand emissions-reducing measures like electric transportation beyond the most affluent residents.
Farther south, Watsonville environmental justice nonprofit Regeneración-Pájaro Valley Climate Action is among those questioning how social programs might be forced to evolve as temperature rises impact agricultural workers directly exposed to the elements.
“Over the past few years, there’s definitely been a significant increase in awareness and knowledge on climate and where things are going,” says Nancy Faulstich, a teacher turned director of Regeneración-Pájaro Valley Climate Action. “Frankly, it’s all so little and so late.”
Amid a national conversation about the feasibility of a New Green Deal to jumpstart renewable energy, job training in sustainable industries and large-scale climate mitigation, one big question is how to balance property concerns and concerns about people likely to bear the brunt of extreme heat, stronger storms and potential complications like food or water shortages.
“I’m concerned about life and death,” Faulstich says. During heat waves in the Watsonville area impacting farm workers in recent years, she says, “We’ve heard reports of people fainting, getting taken to the hospital.”
While much of the political conversation revolves around coastal real estate, Regeneración is lobbying officials to consider solutions like reducing emissions by locating farmworker housing closer to jobs, or new kinds of funds that could compensate farm workers for days when it is unsafe to work outdoors. At the county’s more northern end, advocacy groups Santa Cruz Climate Action Network, the Romero Institute and a local branch of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby are organizing events like a “Global Climate Strike” planned for Sept. 20-27.
Regeneración has also launched an “ambassador program” where locals share infographics and climate updates in either English or Spanish.
“There’s a lot about the general environmental movement that’s been very alienating to a lot of people,” Faulstich says, which she hopes may be changing. “Spreading information one by one is really key.”
Just how much it might cost to try to climate-proof the Central Coast, even temporarily, is still an open question.
A 2018 study focused on the nine-county Bay Area put the current market value of 13,000 properties at risk of “chronic inundation” at $8.6 billion, illustrating a disconnect between short-term property values and longer-term climate risks. In late June, a recognizable home on the ocean side of West Cliff Drive sold for $5.5 million, despite a track record of battles about armoring with the Coastal Commission.
Armoring projects can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Carl says there is the potential for “fees up into millions of dollars” if the county or state agencies like the Coastal Commission strictly enforce efforts to mitigate impacts on public spaces.
Already, groups including the Coastal Property Owners Association and two organizations affiliated with the Pajaro Dunes development near Sunset State Beach have raised concerns about hurting home values if the county moves ahead with a proposal to add deed restrictions noting geologic hazards to properties that add new coastal armoring.
“The public should not be responsible for risks undertaken to benefit private property owners in voluntarily developing within hazardous areas,” states the county’s report on the issue.
How armoring may hold up over time is also uncertain.
“At what point do you say we can’t build walls any higher?” Griggs says.
As it stands, about 25% of the Santa Cruz County coast is armored. After high-profile debates about adding seawalls in areas like Opal Cliffs, the county estimates that about half of the shoreline in the urban area around the city of Santa Cruz is armored. In Southern California, where Griggs says 38% of the coast is armored from Santa Barbara to the Mexico border, about two-thirds of beaches are expected to disappear by 2060 if current trends hold.
“The same thing would happen in Santa Cruz,” Griggs says.
As another winter storm season draws nearer, local officials are attempting to balance efforts to reduce carbon emissions that fuel climate change and brace for more immediate fallout, says Tiffany Wise-West, the city of Santa Cruz’s sustainability and climate action manager.
“We have to do both,” she says. “I mean, I don’t know what more there is to say about it.”