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Richard D. Norris: We need to rethink our San Diego coast to deal with sea level rise before it's too late

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 10/16/2020 Richard D. Norris
a man standing on a rock near the ocean: With the jetty closed to high surf, an onlooker watched the surfers from just east of the closure. (John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune) © (John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune) With the jetty closed to high surf, an onlooker watched the surfers from just east of the closure. (John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The recent wildfires and a coming dry winter from the developing La Niña amplify the perils of climate change for our fair city. These threats do not stop at the shore — holding back the ocean should also be on our radar. Indeed, the city of San Diego has calculated the costs of sea-level rise and storm surge on infrastructure — parks, restaurants, stormwater drains — at $528 million by 2030, just 10 years from now, and a cool $1.225 billion by 2100. Those estimates are just for state granted lands almost entirely in Mission Bay. When you consider everything else in our community — the airport, the waterfront, SeaWorld and miles of beaches, our collective liabilities from sea level rise are many, many billions of dollars.

San Diego is constantly making upgrades to city infrastructure so there is ample opportunity to fix what will otherwise flood if our leadership takes action now. We need our elected officials to take a “blue pledge” to start investing in holding back the ocean. The solutions are not just about spending money, but changing how we do coastal development — fewer expensive seawalls and roads, and more “living shorelines” and coastal parks that can temporarily flood.

We also have to accept that sea level rise is a problem now. The city is planning development in Mission Bay that will have a 50-year timeline, and sea level is not even in its plan. Fortunately, the Regional Water Quality Control Board voted unanimously Wednesday to put up money to study the maximum-protection “wildest” marsh restoration plan as a solution to deal with sea level rise. We need the city and the candidates for office to back maximum marsh restoration now, and use it as a starting point for taking climate change seriously.

A recent state report notes that, in 10 years, sea level will be up to a foot higher than it is now. That is not enough to flood much, but add to that seven additional feet of king tides every spring, and the foot or so of flooding from an El Niño, and even several feet of ocean swell from an ill-timed storm surge, and we step into dangerous territory. In 30 years, the high school fields, the golf course and Campland on the Bay could well be repeatedly underwater along with areas of Pacific Beach, Mission Beach Park and Marina Village. The time to fix this costly situation is now, so we can make considered plans, instead of being faced with an emergency.

There is a “win-win” here, where camping, golfing, schools and protection of the community all succeed. There are millions of dollars in state and federal funds to do everything from improving water quality and public access to using marshes to bury greenhouse gases for good. Indeed, we passed Proposition 68 two years ago that is the source of a call right now for grants that could build a “green wall” of new marshlands to protect Pacific Beach and the city property that is occupied by Campland’s RV park. So far, the city has not asked for any of these millions to fix Mission Bay.

There is also a matter of San Diego’s reputation. If implemented, the “wildest” plan would easily become the largest, most visible project anywhere to protect a city from sea level flooding. This wetlands project would put San Diego on the map as a place that is working on future threats while we can fix them. Further, cities around the world face the same problems as we do with sea level rise so we could become a leader for community protection. This is a grander, more forward-looking vision of the next 50 years of Mission Bay than the spectacle of expensive, ugly seawalls when inevitable floods come.

Imagine walking your dog on boardwalks over the marsh that connects Pacific Beach to Fiesta Island. There are clouds of ducks wheeling overhead, sheltered channels to kayak in, and the waterways teem with juvenile fish that support our offshore sport fishery. The community and campers, now connected to their shoreline, are protected behind a green barrier of cord grass when storms lash the coast. Mission Bay High School has an outside laboratory to immerse kids in marine science. Kumeyaay instructors teach you how to build a reed boat. Perhaps even a golf ball lands in the water, whacked from the greens secure behind the marsh. We can do this. Take the blue pledge, including evaluating the “wildest” plan. The time to start is now.

Norris is a geologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and the director of the UCSD Natural Reserve System. He lives in Poway.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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