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California officials need to move faster on sea level rise, legislative study finds

LOS ANGELES - In one of the most comprehensive assessments of the crisis that rising seas pose to California, an influential state panel issued a clarion call Tuesday, urging local officials to take ownership of the issue and lawmakers to move fast and consider much-needed legislation.

The Legislative Analyst's Office, a nonpartisan arm of the state Legislature that lawmakers turn to for fiscal and policy advice, found that the state was already behind on the issue and made the case that any action - or lack of action - within the next 10 years could determine the fate of the California coast.

In just the next decade, the sea could rise more than half a foot - with heavy storms and cycles of El Nino projected to make things even worse.

Critical roads and infrastructure are already mere feet from toppling into the sea and homes are flooding, but cities up and down the coast have been paralyzed by the difficult choices ahead.

“Coastal communities that delay (sea level rise) response activities until coastal flooding is more imminent lose opportunities to implement proactive … responses,” the report concluded. “Instead, they will be forced into a more reactive mode with the need to address the threat immediately.”

The report serves as a road map for lawmakers as they think about bills and budget priorities for next year.

The sweeping recommendations come at a time when California is waking up to the reality that so many of its communities and critical infrastructure are built right to the water's edge. Just last week, a special committee of California lawmakers had gathered for the first time in five years to revive this discussion on sea level rise and what the state needs to do to better prepare coastal communities from devastating loss.

“The goal was to be really clear on the issue - and focus on specific actions and concrete steps to make faster progress on sea level rise,” said Rachel Ehlers, lead author of the legislative analyst report.

Her team reviewed numerous scientific studies and conducted more than 100 interviews with local governments, state and federal agencies, academic researchers, community groups and nongovernmental organizations. They studied existing state laws relevant to this issue, looked at why local governments weren't making more progress and identified all the state agencies with a responsibility to address the issue.

Recommendations include encouraging more regional partnerships and adopting legislation that requires a real estate disclosure, or “vulnerable coastal property statement,” for properties that are in areas at risk of flooding from sea level rise.

Similar to mandatory disclosures for properties in fire and earthquake zones, requiring this information would lull more people out of a false sense of safety - and inform buyers of what the California coast is up against in future decades.

Uncertainty about just how much - and how fast - the sea will rise is not a reason to withhold critical information from the public, the report said. “The state has already determined that, despite the inherent uncertainty, alerting purchasers when a property faces a potential risk of future damage from earthquakes, fires or floods is important public policy.”

Legislative analysts found that responding to sea level rise was not yet a priority for many coastal residents and local elected officials - and much of that is rooted in a general lack of awareness.

They discovered that even in the cities and counties that were trying to study the risks, many people were paralyzed on how to move forward. Cities need more funding to do such large-scale planning into the future, and climate adaptation is such uncharted territory that a lot of planning officials are learning about the issue as they go.

“Having someone to call - we heard that over and over again,” Ehlers said. “They want to be able to talk to experts and other people and ask: What have you tried? What works? What doesn't work? What are some of the issues we should think about?”

So the report urges lawmakers to consider a climate adaptation and regional support network - a center, perhaps, staffed by 20 people, rather than just another website with a bunch of information and links - for providing this much-needed technical support to local governments. Sharing ideas and thinking more regionally is critical, Ehlers said.

“This way, each city, each county, does not feel like they're out there by themselves trying to figure this out,” she said. “And we've got to get cross-jurisdictional partnerships happening. It's essential. The effects of sea level rise don't stop at the county line. And the actions of one city impacts the next city. If one really armors (their coastline), then the beaches are gone in the next.

“We have to work together … and think about the entire coastline.”

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