If you want to see how rising sea levels will change Orange County over the course of this century, you have to go to Balboa Island. For much of the 19th century, what we now call Balboa Island was just a sandbar in Newport Bay—an obstacle to navigation in what then-owner James McFadden thought of as an ideal commercial port, according to the Balboa Island Museum. In the first years of the 20th century, McFadden finally dropped the port idea and sold the sandbar to Riverside land developer William Collins. Soon after, Collins began dredging the bay for silt to ensure his new island would be dry at low tide. He later constructed a series of walls—first out of wood, then concrete—around the island to keep out the high tide. Though Collins succeeded in constructing an island stable enough to support colorful bungalows (some of which are still there) and, later, multistory mansions, he failed to keep out the high tide.
As a child, my family would occasionally visit Balboa Island during the summer, spending a week or so in a rented apartment not far from the famous Balboa Island Ferry. I vividly remember one night when the tide rose so high it submerged all the private piers and docks, then spilled over the seawall, even though anxious residents had buttressed it with sandbags. It was a rare occasion, but it was still scary.
Climate change means those high tides are even higher these days, which is why in early 2018 the city of Newport Beach agreed to raise the height of the Balboa Island seawall by 9 inches. Seawalls aren’t ideal solutions to sea-level rise—or any other oceanographic problem. They encourage development in areas where there should be no development, disrupt the natural movement of sand and sediment, and inevitably fail. But given the deteriorating situation on Balboa Island, engineers had asked for an 18-inch increase in the height of the wall that already surrounds the island. Residents balked, complaining that such a height would ruin their views of the harbor, according to a March 29, 2018, E & E News story; this all but guaranteed a need to return to the wall in the next couple of decades.
Which might have to happen regardless of whether the engineers initially got their way, given what will likely happen to the island over the next 80 years. While there is no uncertainty in the scientific community whether global sea levels will rise—sorry, but sea levels will rise, and perhaps rapidly so—there is less certainty in projecting exactly how high they will rise. “Coastal communities face huge uncertainties,” said Brett Sanders, a civil and environmental engineering professor at UC Irvine. “Engineers aren’t used to designing within that uncertainty. But you can do something small for now, like increase the height of the seawall a little to provide protection against high-tide events. You may be able to design a better system in the future.”
Depending on how high the water rises, that “better system” may include some radical measures, including but not limited to jacking up the entire island—all of its subterranean infrastructure, roads and buildings. “Right now, when we have really high tides, Newport Beach has to do a lot of pumping to keep water out of the streets,” Sanders said. “The city has valves at the end of sewer pipes, but they don’t always close. During really high tides, you see lots of trucks going around pumping so the streets don’t flood. If you have heavy rain at the same time, you can’t pump fast enough. We call this nuisance flooding—it’s not life threatening, but whenever you have sewage in the water, you can be exposed to pathogens, and it can be unhealthy. Increasing high-tide flooding is happening, and it will get worse.”
Despite that, life on the island over the past 20 years remains just as quiet (and conservative) as I recall as a kid. There are still American flags everywhere, though I did notice a lot of red-white-and-blue bunting and a small statue of Ronald Reagan that weren’t there in my youth. And real-estate agents I spoke with on Balboa say that even the recent raising of the seawall height hasn’t been an issue with people interested in buying property there.
“It hasn’t really come up,” said Ryan, a realtor on the island (he declined to give his last name). “People don’t mention it, to be honest. It never really comes up. The island’s been here for a hundred years, and [sea-level rise] is something the city’s looking at. They raised the seawall. And it hasn’t affected sales. So far, so good.”
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There are a number of factors for why sea levels have risen over the past century, according to the 2017 report Rising Seas in California, which was produced by a working group of the California Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team. The warming of the ocean has accounted for about half the rise, with melting glaciers and ice caps, as well as a loss of polar ice accounting for the other half. But the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, if they melt completely, can raise sea levels by 24 feet and 187 feet, respectively, worldwide, according to the Rising Seas report.* This isn’t expected, but a small fraction of the loss of all the ice can have a serious effect on global shorelines.
“This is particularly concerning because satellite observations clearly show that the rate of ice loss from both the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets is accelerating,” states the state-established group’s report. “If these trends continue, the contribution from the ice sheets will soon overtake that from mountain glaciers and ocean thermal expansion as the dominant source of sea level rise.”
For this story, I settled on what I believe is a reasonable assumption (given what we know now about the rates of climate change) that sea levels will rise 4 feet by the year 2100. I’ve seen projections that are both higher and lower than that. In 2016, the Washington Post reported that some scientists were saying 4 feet by 2100 was the “worst case” scenario. Two laters later, NASA reported that we could be dealing with 2 feet of sea level rise by 2100. In January of this year, the Atlantic reported on a new scientific paper that theorized melting Antarctic ice would only contribute a foot of sea level rise by 2100. Then in May, still other scientists published a paper saying coastal communities should plan for 6.5 feet of sea-level rise by 2100, just to be safe.
Much of the uncertainty does not come from questions about the science itself, but rather the actions we take (or refuse to take) as a nation and a world. Given the Trump administration’s hostility toward even moderate efforts at curbing climate change, it’s possible that 4 feet is on the low end of sea level rise. But I ran this figure by Sanders, who has studied how climate change and sea-level rise will affect the coastline for the past decade, and he had no complaints.
To see exactly how that amount would affect Orange County, I used the online Sea Level Rise Viewer, developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Coastal Management. You plug in an area and a projected sea-level-rise measurement, and the viewer shows you in stunning (and scary) detail exactly which spots might start to see more water. It has some limitations, in that there might be levees or other protective measures that aren’t accounted for by the computer model, but it does a good job of showing where potential problems might pop up. And there are a lot of them in Orange County.
With 4 feet of sea-level rise over the next century, Balboa Island basically goes underwater. The rest of the islands in Newport Bay are higher, so they’ll stay dry, but West Newport is going to get a great deal wetter. The Bolsa Chica wetlands will get much larger, extending all the way inland to Warner Avenue and even Beach Boulevard. Same thing with the Little Shell wetlands; everything along the Talbert Channel clear to about Yorktown Avenue is going to see a lot more water on the ground than usual. This isn’t a good thing for the wetlands, either. Sea-level rise can change the intertidal habitats into what scientists call a more open-water environment, which can harm or kill off the life that thrives there now.
As with Balboa Island, the expensive homes at Huntington Harbour will be submerged, and Anaheim Bay in Seal Beach will grow substantially in size, flooding parts of the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. While much of South County’s coast is on cliffs, many pocket beaches in Laguna Beach will vanish. Already, rising sea levels are eroding roads and coastline at Capistrano Beach, Doheny State Beach and San Onofre, all of which will worsen.
“Protecting downtown Laguna Beach might eventually require a beachside seawall on Main Beach, which could be installed in a short time,” retired UCI physics professor Dennis Silverman wrote in January 2018 on his Energy Blog. “By 2100, however, the sea-level rise may cause cliffs to erode twice as fast under wave action. Armoring the walls won’t allow sand to be replenished by erosion and will be washed away, so sand will have to be brought in to protect the walls.”
In real terms, those people who live in areas that show inundation on the NOAA viewer will be on land that is now lower than the height of the high tide. They will, as Sanders noted, have water at their doorstep. Water pumping, levees and seawalls can alleviate the flooding, but such measures inevitably fail. When that happens, people living in these areas will be at risk of catastrophic floods—similar to what happened in much of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
This will occur up and down the California coastline. There is no longer anything anyone can do to prevent it. We can only adapt to it and find ways of living with or around it.
In September 2018, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published a paper by nine researchers led by Jeroen C.J.H. Aerts. Titled “Pathways to Resilience: Adapting to Sea Level Rise in Los Angeles,” it lays out exactly how rising sea levels will change the landscape around us.
“Sea-level rise will increase both the magnitude and frequency of high coastal water levels, exacerbating the risk of flooding for people and assets in low-lying coastal areas when no additional action is taken,” the researchers wrote. “Climate change and climate variability may also increase extreme precipitation events, which cause (flash-) flooding from creeks and watersheds in the backcountry that drain into low-lying coastal areas. Without adaptation, these events may increasingly cause local flooding due to undercapacity of the stormwater-drainage systems. Furthermore, socio-economic trends such as population and economic growth will also increase the exposure of assets and people to flooding.”
Companies are already spending money to protect their future projects from sea-level rise. For instance, the new Poseidon Water desalination plant in Huntington Beach will be in a vulnerable area. Though the site itself is high enough to escape flooding, it is susceptible to what Surfrider Foundation California policy coordinator Mandy Sackett called the “island effect.”
“Surrounding areas lie at much lower elevations than the proposed facility,” Sackett wrote in a Jan. 10, 2018, letter to the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board. “The proposed facility will eventually become an area of high ground surrounded by areas increasingly impacted by coastal hazards. This isolation is routine during high tide events with as little as 1 foot of sea-level rise (potentially as early as 2030) and could impact supporting infrastructure to the facility, including access roads, electricity, water and other necessary elements.”
For Garry Brown, the founding director of Orange County Coastkeeper, this is just one more reason to worry about the desalination plant. “If Huntington Beach moves forward with the Poseidon desalination plant in this location, the project will require structural protective barriers such as seawalls, groins, breakwaters and other coastal armoring structures,” Brown said in a 2015 statement on the proposed plant. “This means additional costs and detrimental impacts to our beaches and coastline, which then impacts our local wildlife and tourism.”
A proposed oil-tank farm in Huntington Beach is also in a bad spot. The project’s own assessment states that the tank farm will “be subject to some coastal hazards now and in the future as sea level rises.” To prevent problems, “the overall ground elevation would be increased and the pad elevations of the residential structures would be raised to provide protection from flood waters that might enter the project site.”
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The value of Orange County’s ocean economy is around $4.3 billion, according to a figure recently shared by U.S. Representative Katie Porter (D-Irvine). And much of that will be in trouble, according to the Rising Seas in California report.
“Human development and pressures from a rising sea threaten the already-diminished coastal wetlands along the California coast,” states the report, which has been used as a guide for municipalities around the state when coming up with their own response to sea-level rise. “Hundreds of miles of roads and railways, harbors and airports, power plants and wastewater treatment facilities, in addition to thousands of businesses and homes, are at risk from future flooding, inundation and coastal retreat. But the total potential impact of such coastal risks is significantly larger still: Not only are economic assets and households in flood zones increasingly exposed, but also people’s safety, lives, daily movement patterns, and sense of community and security could be disrupted.”
Disrupted is an understatement. Sanders said that communities facing rising sea levels have three options: They can defend against the water, retreat from it, or find a way to accommodate it. Though there is a substantial difference between a community building defenses against the water and one that basically abandons inundated properties, all give in to the rising water to some extent. It is the ocean, afterall.
Venice is a fine and historic example of a community accommodating the water, but I can’t imagine wealthy Balboa Island residents will be happy surrendering their first floors to the bay, which would doom those who reside in single-story bungalows. Will everyone eventually abandon the island if flooding gets too frequent and destructive? How high can they build the wall around Balboa until it negates the value of living there in the first place?
“The land of Balboa Island is already below the level of high tide,” said Sanders. “The city has been trying to protect that land. But you don’t have to wait for the ice caps to melt to know what to do.”
Sanders is talking about grade raising, which has already been necessary in places such as the Port of Los Angeles and Galveston, Texas. The reason, in both cases, was oil extraction and groundwater pumping. “The Port of Los Angeles has been dealing with really high sea-level rise for a long time,” said Sanders. “The ground has sunk as much as 20 feet in some areas.”
To fix that, Sanders explained, the port filled the subterranean voids, built new sewers and underground infrastructure, then increased the height of the roads, put down a new asphalt top and built new buildings at the now-higher elevation. It’s complicated and expensive, but there’s really no other option if you want to stay in the area (the Center for Climate Integrity released a report in June estimating that Newport Beach would end up paying nearly $236 million to fight rising sea levels, with Huntington Beach shelling out about $230 million). In fact, Texas is prepared to spend $12 billion to deal with sea-level rise and sinking land.
“The sea level around Galveston, Texas, has risen by 18 inches since 1950,” according to SeaLevelRise.org. “Its speed of rise has accelerated over the past 10 years and is now rising by nearly 1 inch every year. While there are four causes of sea-level rise in Texas, land sinkage is the main contributor. Because so much water is being pumped out of the ground, the ground is sinking to where the water used to be. This makes Texas particularly vulnerable to an increased rate of sea-level rise in the future.”
Sanders, who is an engineer, thinks in terms of building systems to maintain as much of the natural habitats and manufactured lifestyle that we’ve come to associate with living at the coast. Unlike a strictly environmental organization such as the Surfrider Foundation, for instance, he believes that seawalls can do good. But above all, Sanders says, the county has to manage its sediment. “I really think we need to be talking about sediment management,” he said. “Projects along the coast will want more soil to get the higher elevations they need. This is why we want to get a handle on sediment budgets.”
Sediment in the right place can help manage sea-level rise. But as water levels rise, sediment supplies get restricted, which puts pressure on the shoreline and leads to increased loss of sand. Eroding cliffs are usually a great source of sediment for the beaches below them, but armoring cliffsides to protect expensive homes further restricts sediment.
Sanders’ main effort these days seems to be trying to understand how municipalities deal with sand. To that end, his current project, which is funded by NOAA, is on how communities can manage sediment to mitigate the effects of sea-level rise. His work has taken him to Newport Beach, where he said he had a good discussion with city officials about Newport Bay. Once a swampy marshland, Newport Bay is far healthier today, he said, because of dredging operations undertaken since the 1980s. While it works, all that dredging is very expensive. It also might be better, he thought, to reduce the sediment upstream.
“How can we be more creative in how we manage sand?” Sanders asked, rhetorically. “We want to do more work on sediment in Newport Bay. When the sediment is taken out, it’s disposed of far offshore. But there’s a need for sediment on beaches. It’s challenging to do that from a policy perspective. So we’re trying to help cities manage sediment in more creative ways.”
It’s easy for Sanders to suggest taking sediment from one location (Newport Bay) and simply dropping it on Newport Beach itself (or some other beach that may need sand). But there’s a complex bureaucratic apparatus built on sediment, involving everything from the city of Newport Beach to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Part of Sanders’ research involved him mapping out that bureaucracy, so he could better understand how best to move sediment around.
“Projects along the coast will want more soil to get the higher elevations they need,” he said. “Shorelines need sediment to guard against the ocean. The beach is a beautiful, natural protection against erosion, but we’re losing beach sand. Our stormwater infrastructure was designed to move flood water from the mountains to the coast. By doing so, we’ve reduced the supplies of sediment to the shores. Management of sediment is the key to the future; we need to ramp up beach nourishment programs—take sand from offshore and truck it to the beach. That’s done in many parts of Southern California and the world.”
Though it sounds as if Sanders is just moving sand around, there is precedent for doing so in a way that can save a community from flooding. For that, he looks to Katwijk Beach in the Netherlands, a country in which a quarter of the land lies below sea level.
As with Newport or Seal Beach, Katwijk is a small town that relies on the ocean (in this case, the North Sea) for its tourism-based economy. Rather than build a giant seawall that both destroyed views and harmed the beach environment, Dutch engineers buried a dyke in the beach, used it as support for an underground parking structure, then covered the whole thing with a massive sand dune, on which they later constructed various restaurants and so forth.
“What they did makes a lot of sense for parts of Southern California,” said Sanders. “They created a soft, natural ecosystem that was exposed to the environment, while they buried their flood defense underground. It made a lot of sense.”
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In its 2018 State of the Beach Report Card, the Surfrider Foundation concluded that California is actually doing “good” on dealing with projected sea-level rise. The situation here could be a lot worse, the organization found, but the California Coastal Act has already limited a lot of development that might otherwise be even more problematic when ocean levels start rising. While Surfrider did note with dismay that many mitigation projects include seawalls, it still found that “California has every box checked when it comes to sea-level rise planning.”
While the overall picture may look great, it’s clear many residents—even in cities that are already dealing with the effects of climate change—either aren’t yet aware of the changes coming their way or don’t care. On July 17, just 40 or so Seal Beach residents showed up for a presentation at the Marina Community Center on how sea-level rise would impact their city, according to the Orange County Register.
As for Sanders, he said he’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic about how sea-level rise will change Orange County. It will happen, and we will deal with it—one way, or another. “Sea-level rise is a slow-moving challenge for Southern California,” he said. “The bigger realities are storm events—large, disastrous events that trigger change. When will a big El Niño event lead to a lot of damage? When that happens, we will see the shoreline reset.”
*This sentence originally misstated the sea-level rise that would come from the melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice, and has been corrected.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.