On a stretch of Sunset Beach where the overfull Huntington Harbour is higher than Pacific Coast Highway, a pump is ready to keep the road from flooding. In Long Beach, seawater has overtaken Bayshore Beach. The water laps against Balboa Island’s recently elevated seawall on Balboa Island and it crashes onto the boulders protecting beachfront homes in Capistrano Beach.

So far, the ocean reaches these points just a few times a year, when the alignment of the sun and the full moon conspire to create the high water levels known as king tides. One such time is now: King tides will peak in the mornings from Friday, Jan 10, through Sunday, Jan. 12.

But the king tide phenomenon also offers a glimpse of the future, a look at what will be normal tide levels at some point this century. And it underscores the urgency that some government agencies and environmentalists say is lacking as we prepare for oceans taking over developed coastline.

“It’s a time when people can observe with their own eyes what a higher sea level may look like — what beaches are under water, what roads are flooded,” said Annie Kohut Frankel of the California Coastal Commission. “It’s an opportunity to think about climate change, and talk about it with your community.”

To that end, the commission helped launch the California King Tides Project a decade ago, including an online citizen science photo project. Last year, it received some 800 photos of the king tides from throughout the state. In collaboration with other government agencies and environmental groups, the project also hosts king tide information programs to help broaden the public’s understanding of sea level rise.

The state’s Ocean Protection Council, whose forecasts are used to help cities and counties prepare for rising seas, says there’s a 67% chance the ocean will rise at least a half foot in the Los Angeles area by 2030, one foot by 2050 and 3.2 feet by 2100. A king tide is 1 foot to 2 feet higher than a typical high tide.

But marine scientist Jerry Schubel, president of Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, said recent global estimates indicate oceans are likely to see a significantly greater rise — 5 to 7 feet by 2100. And he’s troubled by those who dismiss such impacts of climate change.

“The science is very clear that the climate is changing and it’s mostly because of man burning fossil fuels,” Schubel said. “The deniers are unfortunate. It keeps us from taking the actions we need to be taking.”

For those who want to see the preview provided by king tides, Saturday’s high tide of 6.6 feet occurs at 8:49 a.m. and Sunday’s of 6.5 feet takes place at 9:32 a.m. Storm surges or big surf would send the water even farther inland. The winter’s second round of king tides will roll in the mornings of Feb. 8 and 9.

Adapting to higher seas

With rising seas and crumbling bluffs increasingly jeopardizing coastal buildings, roads and train tracks — and with ocean-height projections increasing — there’s growing testimony that the state has been woefully inadequate in addressing sea level rise.

In Orange County alone, a 6-foot rise would inundate 11 square miles of land and 20 miles of road, affecting 50,000 residents, said Mary Matella, a Coastal Commission scientist, at a September commission meeting in Newport Beach. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that if no action is taken, two-thirds of beaches in Southern California could be swallowed by the ocean by 2100.

Statewide, $8 billion to $10 billion of property will be underwater by 2050, according to a December report from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. Storms surges and big surf would push the waters — and damage costs — even higher.

The Coastal Commission, which oversees coastal development, has outlined three basic strategies for adapting to the swelling seas.

Shoreline armoring, such as seawalls and boulders, is generally discouraged by the commission because it leads to the disappearance of beaches and contributes to beach erosion. Exceptions typically involve homes built before the 1976 Coastal Act and on an emergency basis, such as the 2017 parking lot collapse at San Onofre State Beach.

Instead, the commission — and many environmentalists — favor enhancing dunes and wetlands to bolster natural buffers. Another preferred strategy, dubbed “managed retreat,” involves moving or demolishing waterfront infrastructure and buildings to allow the ocean and beaches to advance landward.

The commission takes sea level rise into consideration when approving new coastal development and a recent FAQ from the agency also mentions the possibility of elevating existing buildings as well as installing breakwaters and artificial reefs.

“The next decade will be critical for preparing for sea level rise,” said commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz.

The commission is currently distributing grants to cities and counties to update their state-required Local Coastal Plans with sea level vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans. In the past five years, $14 million in such grants have been handed out.

More than half of the state’s 61 coastal cities and 15 counties have completed or are working on adaptation plans, according to Schwartz.

But the Legislative Analyst’s Office said efforts need to be accelerated and many environmentalists agree.

“Our communities are behind in developing and enacting adaptation plans that correspond with current sea level rise projections,” said Sean Bothwell, executive director of the California Coaskeeper Alliance. “Sea level projections have increased at an alarming rate — due to increased ocean temperatures and faster rates of Antarctic seal melt — leaving California’s communities, roads and other infrastructure vulnerable to severe flooding and other risks without immediate action.”

The Surfrider Foundation’s coastal preservation manager, Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, pointed out that the county of Orange has not begun a vulnerability assessment despite managing Aliso Beach, Capistrano Beach, Dana Point Harbor, Newport Harbor and Salt Creek Beach. Additionally, she said, the California State Parks manages beaches up and down the coast but doesn’t have any publicly available sea level rise planning documents.

Battle over armoring

Coastal Commission opposition to most seawall and boulder armoring has met with fierce resistance from some homeowners, with at least two lawsuits seeking to preserve the right to protect homes from the advancing ocean.

In one such case, a homeowner wanted to replace a rotting mobile home in San Clemente’s Capistrano Shores Mobile Home Park. The commission agreed to allow the new structure, provided the owner agree to never fortify or otherwise maintain the boulders in front of his beachfront lot — boulders that waves already pummel during high tides.

The homeowner, Eric Wills, sued the commission. A judge ruled in 2016 that while the commission wasn’t obliged to approve future work on the armoring, it could not include an outright ban on such work as a condition for replacing the home.

“The managed retreat policy is a way to try to avoid the compensation that the Constitution requires when private property is converted to public use,” Willis’ lawyer, Larry Salzman, of the pro-property rights Pacific Legal Foundation, told the Southern California News Group last year.

But environmentalists take a different view, with some wanting the Coastal Commission to take an even stricter position. Bothwell says that because seawalls artificially halt the oceans’ advance — and public property begins at the mean high tide level — land kept dry by virtue of armoring is in fact public.

“Their sea wall is actually trespassing on the public’s land and damaging public trust resources,” he said.

The Aquarium of the Pacific’s Schubel is skeptical that coastal homes can simply be moved, pointing out that there is virtually no coastal land available to relocate them in a managed retreat. But those homeowners get little sympathy from the Surfrider Foundation.

“By and large, shoreline armoring benefits a vocal minority of beachfront and blufftop property owners while destroying public resources, drowning our beaches, waves, recreationalopportunities and coastal habitats and could ultimately destroy our coastal economy,” Sekich-Quinn said.

“Eventually, we will have to retreat from sea level rise. The question is whether or not we do it in a managed or unmanaged manner.”

King tide events


“King Tide at the Bay,” Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center, 2301 University Drive, Newport Beach. 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Presented by OC Parks. A family-friendly program to learn about how and why king tides occur. Free. Registration recommended. To register, visit letsgooutside.org/activities .

“King Tides at Westward Beach,” Birdview Avenue and Westward Beach, Point Dume State Beach, Malibu. 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.Presented by USC Sea Grant and City of Malibu. Explore beach ecology and the changing shoreline, and learn about beach dune restoration. Free. For more information, email lchilton@usc.edu. Find the link to RSVP at coastal.ca.gov/kingtides/ .

“Capture the King Tides Nature Walk,” Ocean Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point. 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Presented by Ocean Institute. Power point presentation and then a walk. Note that the event begins 1 hour 40 minutes after the king tide peaks, so attendees won’t see the highest tide in person. $5 per person, members free. Find the link to RSVP at coastal.ca.gov/kingtides/ .

“King Tides Tide Pool Hike,” Ocean Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point. 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.Presented by Ocean Institute. Join a tide pool hike led by an expert naturalist. An extremely low tide is at 4:06 p.m., so attendees won’t experience the king tide first hand but will have good water levels for exploring the tide pools. $15 per person. Walk-ins will only be allowed when space is available. Call 949-496-2274 to RSVP.

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