Should California become one long wall of concrete against the ocean?
July 8, 2019 12:31 PM   Subscribe

"We’ve all played by the shore and built castles in the sand, but seem to forget what happens next: The ocean always wins." The Los Angeles Times has a special report on adaptation strategies for sea level rise and the struggles communities are facing as they confront the need for "managed retreat": The California coast is disappearing under the rising sea. Our choices are grim. You can also play the role of mayor in the accompanying The Ocean Game as you battle the inevitable arrival of the sea.
posted by zachlipton (57 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Everything is ephemeral. Enjoy things while they last.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:36 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]


My strategy of paying the consultant, then low-balling all 4 homeowners until things got so bad that they all took the offer seemed to work.

I wish there had been a buyout option based strictly on income + wealth (other than the home in question, which should really be valued at less than 0, since it'll have to be removed). Basically, give people enough money such that, combined with what they already have, they can afford to move away. The offer should only get lower over time. Make it clear that people need to take the offer and leave ASAP.

Later, eminent domain the whole beach so that any remaining houses can be safely removed before they start flooding and removal gets much more complicated.

Of course, that policy would probably get any local government voted out of office, and that's why having towns handle this is probably a bad idea.
posted by jedicus at 12:48 PM on July 8, 2019 [18 favorites]


Yes, exactly, jedicus. Here is what's happening recently in Del Mar:
"What we learned from our community is that even the mere discussion of managed retreat, in the minds of some, completely devalues their property," says Amanda Lee, Del Mar's senior city planner.

The concern was that if the city formalized a plan that included retreat, it would be harder for property owners to get loans or sell their land.

Hearing those concerns, "we started crossing out managed retreat and replacing it with other words like 'not feasible here in Del Mar'," says Terry Gaasterland, who chaired the city's Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee.

The city council even went as far as to pass a resolution banning future city councils from planning for retreat.
Local democracy seems unlikely to be able to handle this.
posted by PhineasGage at 1:05 PM on July 8, 2019 [33 favorites]


My strategy of paying the consultant, then low-balling all 4 homeowners until things got so bad that they all took the offer seemed to work.

I played a bunch of times, and, best I can tell, that's the only strategy that works--if you don't waste time on rock walls and sand, you can do it in five turns.

Which makes sense, but is kind of a bummer. A mayor can't do anything to keep the water from rising, sand and rock walls don't hold it back for long, and homeowners won't accept a buyout until they start seeing flooded basements and whatnot.
posted by box at 1:07 PM on July 8, 2019 [5 favorites]


“… we have never before dealt with the fact that Mother Nature’s going to do what she’s going to do, and we can’t do anything about it. ”

We, as a species, seem just terrible at dealing with threats that operate outside of specific time-scales.
posted by salt grass at 1:10 PM on July 8, 2019 [17 favorites]


My local airport is on a bluff on the shore. The bluff has retreated 100 feet in the past 100 years, the newspaper reported. But it’s been 4 feet every year for the past few years. The runway is maybe 50 feet from the bluff edge. The problem is widespread.
posted by kerf at 1:22 PM on July 8, 2019 [3 favorites]


Should California become one long wall of concrete against the ocean?

I've seen this movie. Ultimately, seawalls won't work, not as the scale of the threat continues to increase. We need to fight the root cause of the threat at its source. We need to cancel the apocalypse. Walls are a futile distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

Sadly we can't punch global warming with giant robots.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:24 PM on July 8, 2019 [22 favorites]


I played a bunch of times, and, best I can tell, that's the only strategy that works--if you don't waste time on rock walls and sand, you can do it in five turns.

This is a bit what bums me out about the game: the only strategy that works is to use the entire town's money to pay off the people who built homes near the sea. And I'm not sure that's the wrong lesson, politically speaking, but it does seem just generally wrong, especially as many of these communities may be house-rich, but aren't flush with cash.

We need to cancel the apocalypse.

Too late, sorry. We can and need to try to make it not as apocalyptic, but we're firmly in the "what are we going to do to adapt to climate change?" phase now, and plans to deal with sea level rise are firmly part of that.
posted by zachlipton at 1:26 PM on July 8, 2019 [11 favorites]


Oh, so my grandkids having beaches and forests in my home state depends on rich homeowners ceding their primary asset to move somewhere less desirable? Away from shrinking beaches or spreading forest fires?

Great. This will go just dandy.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:28 PM on July 8, 2019 [17 favorites]


Considering the fact that water will find a way....


Will there be an ending to this wall?
Will it extend up to the mountains tall?
Will it join up with the border wall?

Will it keep out liquidkind?
Will it keep out humankind?
Will it bring some people peace of mind?

I don't think so, Uncle Sam you am...
posted by mightshould at 1:28 PM on July 8, 2019 [3 favorites]


From the original article:

More than $150 billion in property could be at risk of flooding by 2100 — the economic damage far more devastating than the state’s worst earthquakes and wildfires.

jedicus: My strategy of paying the consultant, then low-balling all 4 homeowners until things got so bad that they all took the offer seemed to work.

I think we can get that $150 billion figure down a bit.

But my question is: why do towns have to buy out homes on the coast? It's not the towns "taking" the property, it's nature. Is it because the property is being condemned by the town? That's a losing proposition for towns, which I realize is the message in the game.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:29 PM on July 8, 2019 [11 favorites]


Wow, that Del Mar article:

Worden agrees that in Del Mar, managed retreat does not make sense. He doesn't believe it's feasible. But he's also realistic about the challenge sea level rise presents.

"At some point you're left with two options. You either organize a retreat, or you do what's called evacuation and you call FEMA because you're flooded out," he says.


Um. So, it's not feasible to get people to plan to leave, and he knows damn well the problem isn't going away, so the solution is... unscrupulous homeowners sell their several-million-dollars beachfront homes and hand someone else the problem of "oops, your yard is now underwater," until a big storm hits and whatever's left of FEMA tries to rescue people who've lost everything they own?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:29 PM on July 8, 2019 [9 favorites]


As always, privatized gains, socialized losses. Capitalism at work!
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:33 PM on July 8, 2019 [47 favorites]


But my question is: why do towns have to buy out homes on the coast? It's not the towns "taking" the property, it's nature. Is it because the property is being condemned by the town? That's a losing proposition for towns, which I realize is the message in the game.

I resented having to buy out the homeowners at all. If my city is spending money on housing its to create and maintain affordable housing.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:39 PM on July 8, 2019 [14 favorites]


My family rented a house in North San Diego County in February where the ocean spray was actually hitting our windows at high tide. It was frankly terrifying. These are decisions communities need to be making now. They're not.
posted by potrzebie at 1:39 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it snarks me off that many of these rich beachfront homeowners are like "cancelling student loans incentivizes people to make bad decisions! People should suffer the consequences of poor decision-making that led them to take out loans and not get a good enough job! ... but THE HOME I BOUGHT ON A BEACHFRONT THAT HAS BEEN RETREATING FOR YEARS WITH FULL KNOWLEDGE OF THE RISKS? I CAN'T SUFFER ANY CONSEQUENCES FROM THAT!"

(I expect a lot of this will in the end be solved by skyrocketing insurance premiums, honestly.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:43 PM on July 8, 2019 [128 favorites]


I regret that I have but one favorite to give to Eyebrows McGee.

I lack sympathy for people who spent $2M+ on a house next to the water and are now discovering that the water isn't staying put. It's not like this is a secret. And it's not like they were forced by circumstance into buying a house that would be destroyed by any major storm or small shift in weather patterns.

I'm all for towns saying, "we're planning for retreat... and if you don't want to plan, that's fine; when the water reaches X level, we're condemning everything near the beach."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:46 PM on July 8, 2019 [13 favorites]


I think I got this quote from jessamyn. "Nature bats last."
posted by terrapin at 1:50 PM on July 8, 2019 [21 favorites]


Y'all, it isn't all mansions and fancy beach homes. Go back and read the section on Imperial Beach. And while Pacifica has some fancy homes, it's long been a pocket of working class Bay Area nestled next to SF. Please don't be like those folks who reacted to Katrina by saying people should have known better than to live in New Orleans.

A good % of California's total population lives near the ocean. And affected areas don't always "look" like the coast anyway -- the Embarcadero in SF, which is if anything more vulnerable than Ocean Beach, is quite a ways from the open coast.
posted by feckless at 1:57 PM on July 8, 2019 [36 favorites]


(I expect a lot of this will in the end be solved by skyrocketing insurance premiums, honestly.)

That's a big part of what got us out of our little nearly 100-year-old beach cottage built on a former marsh. FEMA re-did the flood maps to reflect the folly of that arrangement, which put our neighborhood on the deep end of the highest risk contour line. Within a couple-three years our annual flood insurance premium had ballooned beyond what we considered reasonable.

The folks who bought it from us must have a lot more confidence in what lies ahead (in terms of floods and flood insurance rates).
posted by notyou at 1:58 PM on July 8, 2019 [3 favorites]


Most cities fight the redrawing of FEMA maps too, it's not just individual homeowners. They don't want their developed land being declared offlimits with rising insurance premiums and they don't want to shoulder the costs of flooding individually.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:59 PM on July 8, 2019 [4 favorites]


Here's my solution: do nothing. Stand up at these meetings and say: this is now an issue between homeowners and their insurance companies. We will not lower property valuations because of ocean encroachment, nor will we attempt to mitigate this issue as it is, in fiduciary terms, now considered an Act of God. Good Luck to you all. BTW, Summer taxes are due. Please see the clerk if you have not paid.
posted by Chrischris at 1:59 PM on July 8, 2019 [27 favorites]


A good % of California's total population lives near the ocean. And affected areas don't always "look" like the coast anyway -- the Embarcadero in SF, which is if anything more vulnerable than Ocean Beach, is quite a ways from the open coast.

But there is little point in a city spending good money to try to fix issues that are well above a mayor's pay-grade. If the city has money to buy out homeowners it has money to build affordable housing in areas that aren't going to collapse or be swallowed by the sea. The homeowners can move there if they want.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:11 PM on July 8, 2019 [6 favorites]


I used to live in Pacifica about 2 blocks from the apartment building pictured. It was slowly condemned over a period of (months? years?) as erosion happened. The house I was renting was just far enough inland to not be in any immediate danger, but it definitely made me rethink buying near there.

As feckless says, Pacifica is (was?) a pretty working class town. Many people there bought their homes for very little money decades ago (and while there was significant home value growth eventually, it was never quite to the level of the Peninsula on the other side of the mountains).
posted by thefoxgod at 2:13 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]


(And of course, having all your money in your home is not very useful if your home cannot be sold... you effectively have nothing)
posted by thefoxgod at 2:14 PM on July 8, 2019 [5 favorites]


A lot of places I'm California already have a de facto seawall. It's called Highway 1 and I'd love to know what they'd spend maintIning it so people can live behind it in the illusion of safety.

Managed retreat is going to happen. Buyouts will be cheapest on the long run, some places are figuring this out, notably San Jose and Santa Barbara.

Bluff erosion is not really related to sea level rise, its more closely related go wave action. The most logical thing would be to install wave breaks off shore, not try to cover the bluffs in concrete but of course humans go straight for the latter.
posted by fshgrl at 2:26 PM on July 8, 2019 [7 favorites]


British coastal villages that have fallen or are falling into the sea.

Glace Bay, NS is also falling into the sea.

Climate change is accelerating the erosion. But we've always only ever borrowed land from the ocean, and it will inevitably take it back. We should have been planning for it.
posted by jb at 2:35 PM on July 8, 2019 [3 favorites]


Well, on the city level, after the sea comes you can always raise the city.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:55 PM on July 8, 2019


Did a search for "Highway 101", didn't find it.

Highway 101 between Ventura and Carpenteria averages maybe 5' above the high tide line. It is sandwiched between the ocean and cliffs- there's no place to move it and no viable replacement route. More than losing some houses, losing that stretch of 101 will cripple the central coast between Ventura and Paso Robles, possibly all the way up to Gilroy.
posted by happyroach at 3:06 PM on July 8, 2019 [5 favorites]


We, as a species, seem just terrible at dealing with threats that operate outside of specific time-scales.

I really wish people would stop repeating this. It’s not true. And in this specific instance, we were poised to take action on climate change in the ‘80s but the fossil fuel companies spent a shitload of money to convince people it wasn’t a problem.
posted by Automocar at 4:03 PM on July 8, 2019 [13 favorites]


Oh, so my grandkids having beaches and forests in my home state depends on rich homeowners ceding their primary asset to move somewhere less desirable?

Not at all. All your grandkids have to do is wait. The sea is coming, whether rich homeowners stay or go. The question is whether those homeowners are smart enough to leave before they wind up in the drink. Signs suggest that they are not.

My parents (in their 70s) have a small condo on the Atlantic coast of south Florida, right on the intracoastal waterway, and I’ve been brushing off any discussion on their part that they think they’d be leaving us kids an asset. Like, there isn’t even going to *be* a Florida in 30 years. Sell it now, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s a coral reef with a mailing address waiting to happen.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:09 PM on July 8, 2019 [15 favorites]


Except the coral is dying.

It’s a toxic waste dump laced with concrete and rusting rebar.
posted by sudogeek at 4:13 PM on July 8, 2019 [1 favorite]




Is the main article paywalled for everyone or is it just me?
posted by knackerthrasher at 4:34 PM on July 8, 2019


knackerthrasher, it was not paywalled for me.
posted by salt grass at 4:41 PM on July 8, 2019


LA Times article wayback: https://web.archive.org/web/20190708034535/https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-me-sea-level-rise-california-coast/

I've found them sometimes paywalled and sometimes not; apparently they're sensitive to adblock software randomly.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:46 PM on July 8, 2019


Local democracy seems unlikely to be able to handle this.

Often, but not necessarily. And local/state government can move much more quickly than the federal government. Elizabeth Rush's unbelievably good book Rising talks about a fascinating case study from Long Island in which the homeowners by and large voted for a massive buy-out of their properties from the state after Hurricane Sandy (an early version of her reporting). Of course, managed retreat is a very different concept to deal with after you're facing down the prospect of rebuilding something that's been devastated.

Something I've thought about since reading Jeff Goodell's The Water Will Come is whether it's possible to actually adapt coastal communities to live with water. He dedicates a chapter to how architects in impoverished countries are redesigning houses and buildings like schools to co-exist with and around water in ways that the US built environment (or infrastructure, or insurance industry) isn't really set up for. How do we redesign our coasts to last as long as possible with the water, and not as a fortress against the inevitable?

Some managed retreat case studies can be reviewed here.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:13 PM on July 8, 2019 [5 favorites]


Whoops, sorry, that would be Staten Island, not Long Island.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:19 PM on July 8, 2019


A couple of months ago, I read an article by an Australian tourist visiting Japan. She commented on the fact that despite incredible access to limitless coastlines, this old traditional culture foreswore ocean views for living up in the hills. and then had the lightbulb moment - maybe when you live near an unpredictable, unstoppable force - you might not want to leave TOO nearby.

"New world problems" - we don't need to follow tradition, we make our own rules. In my more optimistic moments, I view climate change as a positive, as we discover that tradition has value, and that we need to adapt and that we need to accept the old rules.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 5:34 PM on July 8, 2019 [8 favorites]


I understand the sentiment behind "let them suffer", but as a matter of public policy it's desirable to have a unified approach rather than fighting lots of little rearguard battles. Also, national governments (particularly the US government) can literally print money.

IMO the best thing to do is identify affected areas as best as possible, and declare a policy of non-intervention. That is, no money to protect homes, beaches, views, etc; not even most infrastructure. I'm willing to compromise on places like Manhattan, where a literal sea wall may be the only way to go in the medium term.

Non-intervention creates its own problems, though: we don't want abandoned buildings creating unsightly ruins, or pollutants creating health and safety problems. We also don't want to punish purchasers for a lack of prescient foresight: if they were stupid to buy beachfront property in the last few years, does it mean the people who sold it to them were evil and taking advantage of them? How about the people who sold it to them? As for the people who built homes or infrastructure, to what extent was this a failure of regulation? At some point you have to say that this is a societal problem.

Consequently, the government should offer buyout packages to property owners based on today's market value of their home, with some incentive to move now rather than when the water is literally beating against their back door. It should also assist with relocating and/or protecting infrastructure. The ultimate goal will be to move everybody and everything up and inland, leaving nature preserves where practical. The alternative is coasts lined with decaying structures, heavy metals and carcinogens being washed into the sea, and losing beach roads before we have replacements.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:02 PM on July 8, 2019 [4 favorites]


Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Washaway Beach.
posted by lhauser at 7:10 PM on July 8, 2019


Property is the problem. Why are these Sandcastles considered investments?

Louisiana is faring better than Florida, in a way, because our relative poverty has prevented a lot of this this dilemma. Structures in the water are cheaper than not.

But of course, the federal NFIP drives people toward the consensus USA view, that Real Estate doesn't have to reflect reality.
posted by eustatic at 9:25 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]


I would like to point out that in this case the problem is not actually Capitalism. In a capitalist system the risk of owning property would rest on the shoulders of ownership. No one wants to insure property against a 90%+ likely-to-happen-event, that is a market choice. You chose to buy a risky property, that is moral hazard. You expect the state to cover your poor market choices, that ain't a market solution. For families that have been passing properties on for more than forty or fifty years, they have an argument for some compensation. For anyone who purchased a beach front property in the last thirty-five years, it was a risk, you should have known it was a risk, your investment is going to fail. Welcome to the consequences of true poor decision making. You had a choice, unlike those who have to make do with what they can, like New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward. Maybe convert to an underwater style home like the Poseidon Undersea Resorts. Gods know y'all spent enough lucre already, go whole hog. Go Bond villain.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 10:15 PM on July 8, 2019 [4 favorites]


For families that have been passing properties on for more than forty or fifty years, they have an argument for some compensation.

From whom? Statistically, no one in that situation is working poor or destitute.
posted by maxwelton at 12:18 AM on July 9, 2019 [2 favorites]


I would like to point out that in this case the problem is not actually Capitalism.

That’s the joke... capitalism is only for the poor, the rich get socialism to protect their “investments” and dump all the risk on society.
posted by fimbulvetr at 5:10 AM on July 9, 2019 [10 favorites]


Whenever there is this talk of coastal flooding I am reminded of a biography show about H.W. Bush which prominently featured his coastal home on Walker's Point, Maine. It is located on a promontory that juts out into the ocean and was called the "Summer White House" during his term as president.

The home had at the point of filming been severely damaged twice by coastal storms and essentially rebuilt. HW when asked about rebuilding said he was told to rebuild further back from the coast said "The point of the place is to be on the ocean and besides he had the money to rebuild". From wikipedia:
"The home and contents were substantially damaged by a strong series of storms in late October 1991.[2] The damage was estimated at $300,000–$400,000 and the President did receive an undisclosed amount in flood insurance, but failed to take the full deduction for storm damage on his 1991 tax return to avoid a conflict of interest as he was the one responsible for declaring Maine as a 'disaster area'.[3]

In 2015, it was reported that Jeb Bush was building a home on Walker's Point.[4]"
Basically, the risk is not the same once you are in the upper tax bracket and have sufficient wealth that you can simply "What me worry?" the problem away. I mean lots of these people can simply say "Whoops I lost one of my houses" and walk away. And when it comes time to determine compensation they use the people who are less well off as justifications for compensation schemes that strangely, unlike most conservative policies, are not means tested and lack any moral hazard protections so they even get to take the majority of the compensation pool.
posted by srboisvert at 5:11 AM on July 9, 2019 [3 favorites]




Title to eroded or submerged land is lost to the state, by ancient common law. Most state law remains in harmony with those principles.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:14 AM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


Sea level rise is exacerbating the problem, but a lot of these houses (and roads, railways, etc) should never have been built so close to the ocean. Even without any climate change effects, they weren't sustainably located.

The fault for that doesn't just land on the homeowners -- those were collective, institutional decisions, and the solutions will need to be as well.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:50 AM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed the game and thought it was very helpful for understanding how the available options played out. But I was annoyed that buyouts, walls, and sand were the only options.

Buyouts are unfair and wasteful. People who buy in at risk places do bear some responsibility. So do cities that let people build in hazardous areas. So do federal and state governments (and the people who elect them) for not funding good hazard mapping or poorly managing hazards (RIP BC interior, on fire for the rest of my life). So do insurance companies for not accurately assessing risk. We should forget buyouts and do better hazard mapping, build A LOT of nice public/social/affordable housing in the safest areas, and have a federal jobs program dismantling abandoned areas.

Even with good hazard mapping, nowhere is perfectly safe. Losing your house shouldn't mean ending up impoverished or homeless, no matter how carefully or carelessly you chose your home. That's why we need to have real public/social/affordable housing options in quantity and why we need to make sure housing can't be an investment. (How? Land taxes, taxing the difference between a home purchase and sale price at nearly 100% after accounting for inflation/improvements, eliminate private ownership, or one of the gazillion other plans other places have elaborated or enacted.)

While many wealthy people live and build in very hazardous places, we push poor people into the most at risk areas. Nearly all the "affordable" housing in Vancouver, for example, is going into places that have very high air pollution, will liquefy in an earthquake, is in a floodplain, or will be inundated by sea level rise soon. Most places have delightful combinations of those risks. And the cheap housing in Vancouver is nowhere near affordable, so people are getting pushed into the sprawling interior where they're at high wildfire risk.
posted by congen at 9:14 AM on July 9, 2019 [2 favorites]


The folks who bought it from us must have a lot more confidence in what lies ahead (in terms of floods and flood insurance rates).

They’re probably fine. Congress in their infinite wisdom responded to the complaints of homeowners they changed back to the old system in 2014, so the rates are no longer based on the actual actuarial risk.
posted by jmauro at 12:30 PM on July 9, 2019


Title to eroded or submerged land is lost to the state, by ancient common law. Most state law remains in harmony with those principles.

Starting with Elizabeth I, the British state also claimed to own the "foreshore" (bit between high & low tide) and also any land that was reclaimed from the sea.
posted by jb at 1:27 PM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


a relevant song: House on the River
posted by vibratory manner of working at 5:36 PM on July 9, 2019


Buyouts will be cheapest on the long run, some places are figuring this out, notably San Jose and Santa Barbara.

Erm, is that the correct Californian city starting with San? Because while Santa Barbara is indeed on the coast, in San Jose we are, well...quite far from the beach. Unless we are talking Alviso, which isn't on the coast but the very tail end of the bay and the plan there is to build a wall.
posted by jamaro at 10:01 PM on July 9, 2019


Buyouts are unfair and wasteful. People who buy in at risk places do bear some responsibility.

If they hadn't bought the property someone else would have. Anyway, you know who really bears responsibility for their losses? Me and you – statistically speaking – because we're partially responsible for the climate crisis. And by buying them out we get to demolish their property safely, and potentially turn the land into coastal barriers, wetlands, wildlife reserves ir whatever. We need to move past punishing people and look for ways to get through this. Buyouts will make that easier.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:30 PM on July 9, 2019 [4 favorites]


I live in a boat. So I'm not bothered by sea level rises. It'll just increase my choice of moorings.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:03 AM on July 10, 2019




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