Sandy's wrath shows threat to California coast
The death and devastation on the East Coast should be another wake-up call for Californians on how vulnerable our coast is to storm surges and high waves.
The threat is rising along with sea levels, a global phenomenon being accelerated by climate change. Sandy's wrath brings to real life the warnings from two major studies this year.
One study, released in March by the nonprofit Climate Central, estimated that more than 374,000 people and 160,000 homes in California – as far inland as Stockton – are in danger because they are less than 4 feet above sea level. Eventually, seawater could inundate the Delta, potentially jeopardizing the water supply for 25 million people.
In June, the prestigious National Research Council projected that sea levels along most of California's coast could rise as much as 1 foot in 20 years, 2 feet by 2050 and 5 1/2 feet by the end of the century. The expected rise is higher than the global average because much of the state is slowly sinking.
At particular risk are low-lying areas of the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California, where housing and significant projects such as airports, freeways and stadiums have been built only a few feet above the high-tide line.
The study also reminded Californians that they don't have to look at the scenes from New York and New Jersey to see what might happen. They need only remember the winter of 1983, when a series of intense El Niño storms caused more than $200 million in coastal damage.
Scientists were commissioned to do the analysis by state officials in California, Oregon and Washington and by several federal agencies. The report will be used to prepare for erosion and flooding that could threaten homes, businesses, roads and other infrastructure. Since the study came out, an interagency group has been working to update by next spring California's plan for dealing with sea-level rise.
The state Natural Resources Agency is taking the lead in that important work. In March 2011, it adopted a nonbinding resolution urging state agencies to take rising seas into account in decisions such as issuing permits or leasing land.
Some agencies are voluntarily answering that call, as are some local communities. Local and state officials who haven't done so yet should get with the program. It's in the best interest of the people they serve – and perhaps sooner than they may think, as Sandy shows.
Ben Strauss, director of Climate Central's program on sea-level rise, says the superstorm is a sobering illustration of how vulnerable basic infrastructure is to rising waters – and of the "overwhelming temptation" to put off necessary preparations because of the economic and political costs.
Sandy is "awful," he told The Bee's editorial board, "but it's an educational opportunity also."
California's policymakers need to pay attention to those lessons.
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