PD Editorial: California isn’t ready for rising sea levels

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When state lawmakers wondered what they should be doing to prepare for rising sea levels, they asked their research experts to dig into the issue. The report is out, and the conclusions isn’t what one might expect.

Usually when there’s a big challenge confronting California, lawmakers want to throw money at it. That’s not going to work in this case, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which wrote the report. The office is a nonpartisan fiscal and policy adviser to the Legislature.

“The state does not have the fiscal resources to fund most of the coastal adaptation activities that ultimately will be needed to prepare for (sea level rise). Nor would expecting statewide taxpayers to fully subsidize such activities be appropriate given that most coastal properties and infrastructure are owned by and primarily benefit local governments or private entities,” the report concludes.

In other words, the state doesn’t have enough money to fix things, so local governments are going to have to step up.

It’s striking that in this case taxpayers statewide get a pass. On myriad other local issues all taxpayers help pay for solutions. From homelessness in cities to irrigation in agricultural regions, there are plenty of “local” programs and challenges that the receive support from the state. Apparently coastal communities aren’t so worthy.

Nevertheless, the state still has some role in addressing sea level rise. The report recommends spending modest amounts on seed money to encourage localities to pursue projects before it is too late. It also encourages the state to support and advise localities as they figure out what to do.

Lawmakers should remember, too, that not all of the infrastructure is local. State highways, especially, need state funding to prepare for climate change.

The study paints a particularly grim picture for Highway 37. Travelers who use that essential corridor linking Highway 101 and Interstate 80 are all too familiar with what water can do. Flooding has closed portions of the route for extended periods three times in just the past three years, most recently in February.

Yet long-term fixes are barely in a planning phase. Work on Highway 37 won’t begin until 2030, 2050 or beyond. That slow-go approach is what the Legislative Analyst’s Office warns against. Sea level rise won’t wait.

The state must take its leadership role seriously, and the associated costs. Most local governments lack the expertise to deal with climate change. The state has specialists who can help them design plans that fit their needs.

Localities aren’t off the hook, though. If the state won’t fund much, localities will have to figure out how to pay for massive coastal infrastructure changes lest they wind up paying more in the long run. Buildings on beaches and in other low-lying areas must be protected, reinforced or moved.

Cities, counties and school districts also must make those big financial plans in the awareness that property tax revenue will be volatile as valuable coastal homes lose value when the sea encroaches.

Coastal communities must not delay action, and neither should the state. It is often hard to rally support for expensive project to prevent harm that won’t arrive for years or decades, but it will take years, decades and billions of dollars to prepare.

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