Sea Level Rise Flooding Threatens More Than Your Real Estate

When people who own real estate in coastal communities consider the threat posed by sea level rise flooding, they often focus only on their own structures and land. That can be a costly mistake.

The fact is sea level rise flooding outside their property lines can impact their property value, financial future and quality of life. How? For example, nearby roads that flood can keep owners from reaching their property. Wastewater systems that are infiltrated by seawater can become ineffective or even inoperable, which can result in sinks and showers that don’t drain and toilets that don’t flush. And taxes can go up when cities and towns are forced to raise seawalls and other critical infrastructure.

A Civil Grand Jury in Humboldt County in Northern California is busy drafting an assessment that lists the many ways sea level rise will impact coastal communities there. In a report titled “The Sea Also Rises”, the Grand Jury warns that the county, which includes Arcata and Eureka, is at risk from flooding due to the double-whammy of sea level rise and natural land subsidence.

The list of problems the Grand Jury says will be created as seawater inundates more and more land includes the following:

  1. Communities around Humboldt Bay will experience more frequent flooding.
  2. Highway 101 and the only access road to King Salmon could be cut off by floodwater.
  3. The local energy system could be disrupted as flooding impacts a PG&E generating station, municipal water transmission lines, electrical transmission towers, and transmission poles.
  4. An interim spent nuclear fuel site could be damaged.
  5. Commercial properties, including three cargo and commercial docks, could be flooded.
  6. Environmentally contaminated sites in the Arcata and Fairhaven could be compromised.

The Grand Jury isn’t only forecasting future problems, it’s taking stock of problems that exist today. For example, the report says property values in the Fairhaven/Finntown area are already suffering because very high tides are causing septic systems and leaching fields to fail — which is a problem in many coastal areas experiencing sea level rise flooding.

In its draft summary, the Grand Jury is calling on all elected officials to make sea level rise flooding a priority. β€œThe County of Humboldt; the cities of Arcata and Eureka; and the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District should formally state their immediate and continuous support for, and commitment to, SLR (sea level rise) mitigation and adaptation efforts,” it wrote.

Cities and towns all along the US coastline are taking stock of the threats posed to residential and commercial real estate, public lands, and critical infrastructure. A few years ago, an environmental consultant estimated that the mid-sized South Florida city I live in needs to spend $378 million to defend itself against sea level rise. With inflation, it’s likely the actual cost is higher now.

Owners and buyers of real estate in coastal communities need to know what’s at-risk from sea level rise flooding in their community, how much it will cost to eliminate and mitigate the flood waters, how much local taxpayers will be expected to contribute to the effort, and the soundness and life-expectancy of the projects being implemented and those under consideration. Not knowing this critical information could lead to an unexpected loss of property value and spike in taxes and other expenses.

Does the 1.5 Degrees Celsius Global Warming Goal Even Matter Anymore?

Headlines abound this week that the world has a 50% chance of surpassing the dreaded 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in global temperature since pre-industrial levels. The media is reporting on a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) prediction released Monday that the globe could hit that mark briefly in 2026, which, the experts say, could give us a sampling of what living with catastrophic climate change would be like.

Reading the reports, I had to wonder, do the scientists, journalists, and public officials who worship in the church of 1.5 degrees Celsius, you know, ever actually go outdoors or read the headlines about what’s already happening in the world due to climate change? When the WMO was crunching its numbers and issuing its report, wildfires were ripping through New Mexico at an intensity usually experienced later in fire season, the Western US was pondering life without water and electricity from Lake Powell and Lake Mead, Southern California was dreading the possibility that it could run out of water in August, Northern California was concerned that saltwater could back up into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which would pollute a freshwater source millions of residents and farmers depend on, houses were falling into the ocean in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, hundreds of millions of people in India and Pakistan were enduring a two-month-old deadly heatwave, and France was preparing for a record drought. We’re even starting to see climate migration as Californians move out of their state to escape the heat, wildfires and water restrictions. This is just a partial list of the catastrophes we’re already experiencing, and, according to scientists, we’re only 1.1 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial temperature benchmark.

The WMO report was released a week after Science magazine published a curious report with the headline: “Use of ‘too hot’ climate models exaggerates impacts of global warming”. The article, the U.N., which for years has been sounding the alarm about climate change, was subtitled “U.N. report authors say researchers should avoid suspect models”. Their concern? That studies that predict the world will get hot faster than expected “threatens to undermine the credibility of climate science, some researchers fear.” Let me get this straight: The world is getting torched now and their biggest worry is “the credibility of climate science?”

I think UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres hit the mark in March when he said: “Despite growing pledges of climate action, global emissions are at an all-time high. They continue to rise. The latest science shows that climate disruption is causing havoc in every region – right now. We are in a race against time to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees. And we are losing.”

As someone who lives in South Florida, where sea level rise is already flooding many coastal communities and lurking just under the manicured lawns and streets in others, and who spent last summer camping his way across America to see firsthand how climate change is already impacting other parts of the country, I can tell you with great certainty that aggressive science isn’t the world’s biggest problem, current climate catastrophe is. During my adventure, I choked on smoke from wildfires ripping through the Rockies, saw Lake Powell shockingly depleted of water, houses teetering on cliff’s edge in Pacifica, Lake Shasta’s water way below its blaze orange banks, a gray dome where Mount Shasta would normally be covered in snow and even worse the northeast side of the mountain ablaze, a fire burning at a distance in Lassen National Peak that consumed half the surrounding forest after I left, the mushroom cloud signature of the Boot Fire in Oregon, and Mount Rainier low on snow after a record heatwave. Running from fire and smoke was an essential part of my summer vacation.

To me, the science I’m reading is out of whack with the reality I’m witnessing with my own eyes. I’m beyond worrying about 1.5 degrees Celsius and temperatures above that mark because we’ve already reached the point of global catastrophe.

There’s a lot of talk about how people are feeling frightened and helpless about climate change. Maybe the solution is to stop arguing over the science and tell them what they can do right now to make a difference through a series of public service announcements. For example, they need to know that they can make a difference today by: 1. Voting only for candidates who believe in climate change and are committed to fighting it; 2. Purchasing the most energy efficient vehicle they can afford; 3. Only driving when necessary, consolidating trips and sharing the ride; 4. Buying only what they truly need; 5. Weatherizing their homes and offices; 6. Purchasing energy efficient appliances; 7. Turning off appliances and electronics that are not in use; 8. Investing in renewable energy, such as solar panels and windmills for their homes and businesses; and 9. Eating a more plant-based diet. In short, they need to understand that we cannot, in fact, continue to live as we are, and continue to live on a habitable planet. The choice is stark, but real. And saving the planet will come at great sacrifice — including higher costs for energy, food and other goods.

Evidence abounds that we’re not running out of time to counter the catastrophic effects of climate change, we’re out of time. We need to act now or suffer even greater consequences.

Sea Level Rise-driven Saltwater Intrusion Could Impact Coastal Real Estate Values

As sea level rises, coastal cities and towns are growing increasingly concerned that fresh water sources used for drinking water, wastewater treatment, agricultural irrigation, and industry could be fouled by saltwater intrusion. Saltwater intrusion occurs when higher sea level forces saltwater inland at the surface or underground through porous rock and sand. When the salt water reaches fresh water intakes on rivers or underground wells, the fresh water become unfit for human consumption and most other uses.

According to a study published in the Journal Nature, millions of Americans live in coastal communities at risk of losing access to fresh water due to saltwater intrusion. KCRA in San Francisco aired a report last week that examined the threat saltwater intrusion poses to the state’s Central Delta waterways.

As sea level rises, it threatens to push salty ocean water up into delta rivers and estuaries that provide drinking water to 27 million California residents as far away as Southern California. The water is also used to irrigate the Central Valley’s farmland.

Sea level rise isn’t the only contributor to the saltwater intrusion problem. The West’s ongoing mega-drought is also drawing down river levels, which could potentially hasten the inland movement of saltwater from the sea. The only way to prevent this is by releasing more water from reservoirs or the construction of a barrier to block the saltwater, which California is trying on the West False River.

The threat to real estate owners and buyers in all of this is that any community that loses access to fresh water is a community in distress. This could cause real estate values to plummet. Clearly everyone involved in coastal real estate needs to be aware of where their fresh water comes from and how safe it is from saltwater intrusion.

Buyers, Sellers & Real Estate Agents Don’t Always Agree On Managed Retreat from Sea Level Rise Flooding

When it comes to sea level rise mitigation efforts, buyers’, sellers’ and real estate agents’ interests are often in conflict.

Buyers need access to accurate information regarding the threat sea level rise flooding poses to a property of interest and the community in which it’s located. Sellers don’t necessarily benefit when buyers have access to this information because it can cause their property values to drop. And real estate agents want a dynamic market that delivers commissions, which isn’t guaranteed in an at-risk community. Clearly, when sea level rise flooding is present or poses an immediate threat to a property, neighborhood or entire coastal community, all three interests can’t be served.

Alix Spiegel, a producer for Chicago Public Media’s This American Life, recenlty explored these conflicting interests in the city of Pacifica, California. Her report, titled Apocalypse Now-ish, describes how sea level rise has amplified wave action against the city’s sandy cliffs, causing the loss of at least 31 homes and three apartment buildings to date. With the cliffs continuing to collapse, many more homes are at risk in what Spiegel described as “A surreal horror movie in extremely slow motion.”

In 2018, the California Coastal Commission asked coastal communities to study the threat sea level rise flooding posed to them and describe what they planned to do about it. The options included elevating houses, building seawalls, and managed retreat. The last option, managed retreat — in which the government purchases homes under threat and usually demolishes them because it’s cheaper than repeatedly rebuilding them and providing road maintenance and utilities — set off a firestorm in Pacifica.

According to Spiegel’s report, the public was extra agitated by misinformation from a Realtor’s organization that told them the state would require homeowners to pay to destroy their homes and have the rubble removed. The producer makes it clear that it’s against state law to require this. A Realtor spokeswoman stands by the misinformation, however, claiming there’s no way the state will have enough money to purchase all the homes at risk in Pacifica and other communities experiencing sea level rise flooding.

Ultimately, the conflict comes to a head when Pacifica replaces a mayor Spiegel says isn’t a “firebrand” for managed retreat with one who opposes it. Under the new mayor’s leadership, the city removes mention of hazard areas and states its opposition to managed retreat in the report filed with the California Coastal Commission.

Property buyouts under managed retreat plans have taken place for years in many coastal states and are actually accelerating as sea level continues to rise. They’re most common in areas that have experienced a natural disaster that destroys property and puts the next line of structures at risk.

This American Life’s report clearly illustrates the conflict between buyers, sellers and real estate agents. There is no easy way to resolve it.

When making what’s typically the most expensive purchase of their lives, buyers clearly need to know if a property of interest is in a hazard area at-risk for sea level rise damage. When that information is not available, they may unwittingly overpay for a property that’s under threat of destruction or that may suffer depreciation in value because it’s in or near a threatened area. To avoid this negative outcome, buyers need to make sure they research how sea level rise is impacting a property of interest, neighborhood or community. Seller’s disclosure laws vary greatly from state to state so relying solely on them is a big mistake.

Sellers, on the other hand, have a valid point when they complain that the mere mention of that their property is in a hazard area or could be subject to managed retreat will hurt their property value. The challenge for them is that unless their property is experiencing sea level rise flooding or in close proximity to it, they don’t always know exactly when it will impact their property value. Here, too, smart sellers need to keep up-to-date on the latest sea level rise developments in their communities and consider selling before it impacts their property values. They also need to know how their government plans to cope with sea level rise flooding as taxes and insurance rates could spike. There’s also the danger that insurers and mortgage providers will one day stop offering their services to their neighborhood which will make selling their property nearly impossible.

Realtors (not all real estate agents are Realtors) are walking a real tight-rope on this issue. Their code of ethics requires them “to treat all parties honestly”. How they’ll be able to do this if, as in Pacifica, they don’t want buyers to know that structural engineers determined a home is located in a neighborhood that’s designated as a special hazard area that could lead to properties being damaged or losing value due to sea level rise doesn’t quite live up to the ideal. They clearly shouldn’t be in the business of pressuring coastal cities and towns to sweep sea level rise facts under the rug, which gives buyers and sellers a false sense of confidence that a property of interest is safe from the threats posed by sea level rise.

The take-away in all of this: With hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings worth billions of dollars at risk of sea level rise flooding between now and the end of this century, buyers and sellers have to conduct due diligence to protect their financial futures when they’re involved in real estate located in coastal communities.

Can Sand Dunes Save Hundreds of Homes in a California Town from Sea Level Rise Flooding?

Communities all along the U.S. coastline are scrambling to find ways to save coastal real estate from sea level rise flooding. Stinson Beach in California is now considering sand dunes as a way to keep rising seas from damaging or destroying over half of the town’s 775 homes by 2030.

An article published in the San Francisco Chronicle explains that Stinson Beach is already vulnerable to ocean flooding and has lost homes to the ocean during severe storms in the past. Sea level rise is making it likely even more homes will be lost in the near future, especially if nothing is done to hold back ever higher tides.

Marin County is exploring the possibility of building ecologically-correct sand dunes to protect the structures. County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni told the Chronicle that investing time and money in the dunes might be worth it, even if they provide only a temporary reprieve.

A study released in 2016 predicted that Stinson Beach would lose its beach by 2050. By the end of the century, up to 600 homes worth $1.5 billion would be flood-ravaged beyond repair. Marin County estimates that sand dune construction will cost up to $55 million, while more-permanent, less ecologically-friendly solutions, like seawalls, will cost up to $155 million to build.

Stinson Beach isn’t the only California coastal community facing this dire future. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that up to $10 billion worth of California real estate will be claimed by the sea by 2050.

Stinson Beach’s situation is a powerful reminder that real estate buyers and owners need to stay up to speed on the level of threat sea level rise flooding poses to their communities so they can make informed decisions regarding property that may only be viable for a few decades before its claimed by the sea.

My Shocking American Climate Change Road Trip is a Call for Action Now

Anyone who doesn’t believe climate change, global warming, and sea level rise are real needs to see the shocking sights I saw during a summer road trip across America.

From early July through early August, I tent camped my way up the Appalachian Mountains, across the mid-part of the country, and all over the West, including Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming. In ten short weeks, I saw:

*A Lake Powell, Utah, boat ramp high and dry due to the mega-drought;

*Houses in Pacifica, California, dangerously close to toppling into the Pacific Ocean because of sea level rise-driven erosion;

*Bone dry Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, before a wildfire burned through half its forests;

*Mount Shasta, California, nearly snowless with smoky fires burning on its stark gray flanks;

*The drought-stricken Lake Shasta reservoir so low the exposed orange and yellow banks were blinding;

*An enormous mushroom cloud billowing over the Bootleg Fire — Oregon’s third worst wildfire ever;

*Mount Rainier, Washington, snow-starved, its glaciers melting due to an unusual early summer heatwave;

*An elementary school being built inland in La Push, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula because sea level rise and stronger Pacific storms threatened the historic coastal village; and

*Endless, hazy wildfire smoke filled skies.

Scientists have accumulated an enormous body of research that says the heatwaves, mega-drought, stronger, more damaging storms and wildfires, sea level rise, receding glaciers, and depleted reservoirs we’re seeing today are all related to climate change and global warming, which is going to get progressively worse in the decades to come. What I saw with my own eyes says they’re right.

The real question now isn’t the science and it isn’t whether or not climate change is harming the world around us today. The science is sound and climate change/global warming is hitting us on many fronts today. The real question now is do we have the will to act to save the planet for our generation, future generations, and the wildlife that deserves a functioning Earth as much as we do.

In this video, I take you with me on my shocking American climate change road trip and propose five steps we can all take today to fight this global threat:

  1. Only elect candidates who believe we need to combat climate change now.
  2. Money talks. Buy from companies that not only talk about the need to fight climate change but are taking action now.
  3. Buy the most energy efficient vehicles we can afford.
  4. Buy the most energy efficient homes and businesses we can afford or take steps, and practice energy conservation by switching off TVs, computers, lights and other electronics when we’re not using them.
  5. Eat a mostly plant-based diet to help reduce the amount of energy needed to produce food.

Watching the planet go up in flames isn’t an option. We all need to act NOW.

California Warns Against Shelving Plans to Address Sea Level Rise during Covid-19 Pandemic

California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) warned this week that the state can’t afford to delay efforts to deal with sea level rise flooding because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a report titled “What Threat Does Sea-Level Rise Pose to California?”, the LAO said: “While the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic and resulting economic impacts have rightly drawn the focus of the Legislature’s and public’s attention since March 2020, other statewide challenges continue to approach on the horizon. Among these are the impending impacts of climate change, including the hazards that rising seas pose to California’s coast.”

Report authors quote scientific estimates that California could face a half-foot of sea level rise by 2030 and up to seven feet by 2100. The threat posed by sea level rise could be amplified by storm surges, exceptionally high king tides that occur in the fall, and El Nino events.

Many coastal communities are already experiencing the negative effects of sea level rise and the situation is only going to get worse. Cities and towns are dealing with nuisance flooding, beaches are eroding, cliffs are collapsing — often carrying homes with them — and public infrastructure is being wrecked or overwhelmed. Natural resources, water supplies and entire economies are also at risk.

The report predicts that California will see up to $10 billion worth of property underwater by 2050 and up to an additional $10 billion worth of property inundated during high tides. When sea level rises four feet, 28,000 socially vulnerable residents in the San Francisco region alone could experience daily flooding. Furthermore, by the end of this century, up to two-thirds of the state’s beaches could be completely eroded away.

LAO officials said in the report that they recognize the burden the pandemic is placing on government and the economy. “However, given the significant threats posed by sea level rise in the coming decades–and the additional public safety and economic disruptions that will result absent steps to mitigate potential impacts –the state and its coastal communities cannot afford to defer all preparation efforts until economic conditions have fully rebounded from the recent crisis,” they said. They recommend that the government undertake activities to address the threat posed by sea level rise that require little funding, such as continuing to draft plans, meet and share information.

In the U.S., federal, state and local governments are bending under the enormous administrative and economic burden posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The California LAO’s insistence that efforts to address sea level rise continue even in these troubled times is on the mark. The fact that regardless of the pandemic, global warming continues to cause sea level rise, putting hundreds of billions of dollars worth of real estate and critical infrastructure at risk. Protecting property and infrastructure isn’t cheap and it can’t be accomplished overnight. Letting down our guard now, will have grave consequences in the future.

All coastal communities and real estate owners and buyers need to heed the California LAO’s warning.

California Coastal Commission and Malibu Developer Clash Over Sea Level Rise Height Predictions

The California Coastal Commission, the City of Malibu and coastal developer at clashing over a new beach development on the Pacific Coast Highway. One of the major points of contention is estimates of how much the sea will rise by 2100.

The city approved the developer’s plan based on an old sea level rise estimate of 1.5 feet by the turn of the century. The Coastal Commission takes issue with that prediction, which it says will put the property at a greater risk of flooding.

An engineer the city used to evaluate the project approved the 1.5 foot estimate because that was the number the Coastal Commission included in its 2015 guidance document. The Coastal Commission says the engineer should have used its region-specific estimate and updated 2018 guidance.

The gap between the Coastal Commission and the engineer is enormous. The sea level rise estimate was increased to over five feet in 2018. According to an article in the Malibu Times, a Coastal Commission staff report said, “The difference is more than 4.65 feet, which is significant in determining the required setback, finished floor elevation, and safety of the proposed structure from extreme events and sea level rise.” The report also mentions that scientists are now estimating that the seas could rise anywhere from 3.3 feet to 10 feet by the end of the century.

Scientists are having a tough time predicting sea level rise precisely because humans continue to burn the fossil fuels that create the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming at an accelerated rate. If society continues on this track, even the most liberal predictions could turn out to be conservative, especially if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt faster and are destabilized to the point where land-based glaciers flow more rapidly into the sea.

The Malibu case is just one example where real estate developers and cities are relying on the most optimistic sea level rise estimates for new construction projects. Buyers shouldn’t trust that a developer or city has done its homework when they purchase a coastal property. Independent due diligence is required to make sure they’re fully informed regarding the risk of sea level rise flooding in the years to come.

California Town Embraces Retreat to Address Sea Level Rise Threat

“Resiliency” and “retreat” are two popular buzzwords regarding sea level rise and real estate. Resiliency is making the changes necessary to prevent sea level rise flooding as long as possible so people can continue to live near the coast. Retreat is recognizing that either the cost is too high or it’s impossible to engineer your way out of the flooding, so everyone has to move back away from the coastline.

Currently, resiliency is the solution most coastal cities and towns are using to address sea level rise. Governments and property owners are spending billions of dollars to elevate property and critical infrastructure, such as pipes and roads. They’re also building and/or raising sea walls and installing pumps.

Retreat is far less popular. From the Florida Keys to the Pacific Coast, property owners are fighting plans that would force them to move away from coastal areas that are subject to sea level rise-driven flooding or at great risk of flooding in the near future.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Marina, California, a small town with 23,000 residents north of Monterey, is actively embracing retreat as a solution to its sea level rise woes. The town is considering plans that have proven unpopular in most coastal locations, including requiring sellers to disclose sea level rise information to buyers, moving infrastructure away from at-risk areas, and discussing relocation with the operators of a private beach resort.

To ensure that the town doesn’t have to make the same difficult decisions over-developed towns are being forced to make regarding resiliency or retreat, Marina officials are actively steering real estate developers toward inland locations away from the eroding shoreline.

David Revell, a coastal scientist and sea level rise consultant, told the Times, “Marina is such a good test case. Here we have the precedent of a community that understands that … there has to be enough lead time to get things out of the way — before it’s in the way.” Revell added that Marina’s pro-active approach “is a really powerful message to the rest of California.”

Residents seem to generally approve of the town’s approach to dealing with sea level rise. The town’s draft plan is almost finished.

Real estate buyers in coastal areas need to consider whether a city or town intends to rely on resiliency or retreat to address sea level rise flooding. Resiliency can lead to higher taxes and the possibility that a property of interest will be impacted by the construction of sea walls, pump stations and other infrastructure. Retreat could limit the amount of time a property can be owned and enjoyed. Both approaches could also impact property value.

Orange County, California, Grappling with Sea Level Rise

This weekend, the alignment of the sun and moon are creating higher-than normal-king tides along the U.S. coastline. Activists and organizations in Orange County, California, are hosting events at several locations (listed in this article) to not only show the public what a king tide does to their shoreline but to make them aware that sea level rise is going to make what’s now considered a higher-than-normal tide the norm in the coming decades.

Sea level rise flooding is already threatening beaches, bluffs, railroad tracks, roadways, and real estate in California. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates in a December report that statewide up to $10 billion worth will be inundated by 2050.

The California Coastal Commission is considering a few options to hold back or divert the rising seas, including building seawalls (which can actually cause more rapid beach erosion), enhancing natural buffers, such as dunes and wetlands, and moving or demolishing structures on beaches so the ocean and beaches can follow their natural flow without flooding real estate and infrastructure. All of the solutions under consideration have costs and benefits. In some cases, residents are fighting the changes, claiming that their private property rights overrule the public interest.

The U.S. Geologic Survey predicts that sea level rise could devour up 67 percent of California’s beaches by 2100. The loss threatens to damage the state’s tourist economy and put even more bluff-top homes at risk of toppling into the sea.

Sean Bothwell, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance told the Orange County Register, “Sea level projections have increased at an alarming rate — due to increased ocean temperature and faster rates of Antarctic sea melt — leaving California’s communities, roads and other infrastructure vulnerable to severe flooding and other risks without immediate action.”

Hopefully, public education projects, like the special king tide events being held in Orange County, will convince people that now’s the time to act.

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