Rising Tides on The Golden Shore
Californians may soon have more sea to love than they can handle
Adapted from The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea
I believe it’s Californians’ sense of entitlement to the coast and ocean, their understanding that it belongs to all of them—surfers, sailors, fishermen, the maritime industry, the tourist industry, the navy, the tribes, and every single beachgoer —that makes protecting California’s seas both so contentious and so effective. Because of their wide range of users, California’s ocean and shoreline can never be dominated by a single industry or interest.
Photo by Albert de Bruijn
In Massachusetts there’s a feeling the ocean belongs to the fishermen, and as a result New England’s waters have long been overfished and depleted. In Louisiana they know it belongs to the oil companies, and things like the BP oil blowout of 2010, the loss of their coastal wetlands, and the “cancer alley” that’s grown up along the lower Mississippi where the refineries are located is the price they’ve had to pay. In Florida the real-estate industry so dominates ocean and coastal uses that when you encounter bits of undeveloped “old Florida” it’s like finding a piece of paradise lost. In California, however, it’s the people who continue to fight over and protect their golden shore and deep blue sea.
According to the California Ocean Protection Act of 2004: California’s coastal and ocean resources are critical to the state’s environmental and economic security and integral to the state’s high quality of life and culture. A healthy ocean is part of the state’s legacy, and is necessary to support the state’s human and wildlife populations. Each generation of Californians has an obligation to be good stewards of the ocean, to pass the legacy on to their children.
South to north or river to sea, SeaWorld, Big Sur, the Golden Gate, the Beach Boys or, Beach Blanket Babylon, California’s ocean waters are historic, cultural, legal, and literary phenomena bonded to the very DNA of the state. Its passionate love affair with the ocean is ongoing, its pop-cultural references to it too vast to fully enumerate. The Endless Summer starts and ends in California. The original Treasure Island was filmed on Catalina, and Sea Hunt, in which Lloyd Bridges played underwater investigator Mike Nelson—inspiration for generations of divers and marine scientists—was largely shot in the waters off Catalina where actress Natalie Wood also drowned and a criminal investigation into her death was reopened forty-five years later. SpongeBob SquarePants was created by California marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg, The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo were brought to life by California’s Disney and Pixar studios.
It’s also worth noting it was Southern California’s Baywatch, not Florida’s Flipper or Oahu’s Hawaii Five-O, that became the most watched television series on the planet, though not purely for reasons aquatic. Admittedly The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was produced but not based in California. Still, Jacques’ son Jean-Michel today works and produces underwater documentaries in Santa Barbara while Hollywood director and deep-ocean explorer James Cameron lives by the beach in Malibu.
Unfortunately, we may soon have more sea to love than we can handle. In the twentieth century sea level rose eight inches along the California coast. Moderate projections have it rising at least a foot by 2050 and three to five feet by the end of the century. The California Ocean Protection Council’s five-year strategic plan for 2012 through 2017 states: The changing climate is transforming California’s coast and ocean in unprecedented ways.
In general, sea level is rising, temperatures are increasing, and precipitation and runoff are becoming more variable. The ocean is becoming more acidic as it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Other critical drivers of ocean conditions and productivity, such as ocean currents and upwelling, are also likely to change.... These impacts will intensify over the coming decades and will pose a growing risk to the state.
Whenever I hear predictions like that, I think of the El Niño winters of the early 1980s when I lived in a cliff house in San Diego and serial storms battered the house, the cliff, the neighborhood, and flooded beach homes, commercial properties, and waterfront structures up and down the coast. My roommate Charlie went to shoot the waves breaking over the O.B. pier for his TV station and was hit by the backwash of one, soaking and destroying his $40,000 Ikagami camera. O.B.’s main street, Newport Avenue, was awash with ocean water, foam, and cars covered in kelp that day. My friend Jon wanted to sell his boat up in the Bay Area. After seven weekends of waiting out storms he decided to go for it on the eighth and talked me into going along on the first leg to Oceanside. We beat our way out of Mission Bay but eight hours later, under battering rains, had only been able to get as far as Del Mar. We were four miles off the flooding Del Mar River and the sea was mud brown from runoff with a ladder and a fifty-five-gallon drum floating by, at which point we decided to turn around.
We were driven south at breakneck speed and soon were back at Mission Bay’s jetty, where we had to time our takeoff, and literally surfed the thirty-five-foot sloop Annie through the harbor entry and into the protected waters of the bay. The next morning we motored back out to the entry to see if things had calmed, but it was still closed out with eighteen- to twenty-foot seas. We were talking to the harbor patrol when a big power yacht came charging past us, trying to break through. A wave caught it full on, taking out the pilothouse glass and pushing it sideways toward the seawall. The patrol boat powered up its lights and siren and went to its assistance. Those were bad years with lots of coastal damage and lives lost, and I don’t look forward to an increasing number of them.
A recent report by the US Geological Survey predicts that with changing patterns of rain and snow, including less snowpack and faster-melting snow in the Sierra Nevada, we will see more frequent and intense flooding and droughts across the state. “We have to really think about anticipated changes in the frequency of extreme events,” warns USGS scientist James Cloern, the study’s lead author. “As global warming proceeds, we’re going to experience combinations of environmental conditions unlike any we’ve seen in the past.”
One response may be increased use of desalinization plants along the coast to help offset water losses in the mountains. As this water conversion technology improves, the California Ocean Protection Council is recommending rule changes to ensure that if desal plants do become part of the state’s water supply portfolio they not use the once-through intake/outfall pipes that heat up adjacent waters, not allow large-scale trapping of marine organisms, not allow briny discharges of salt back into the ocean, and that they be low-energy and/or clean-energy users so that they not add significant new greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. OPC is hoping to minimize the law of unintended consequences with early precautionary rule-making even as the state tries to adapt to the disruptive consequences of our ongoing energy choices.
Rising tides under the Golden Gate Bridge are projected to directly impact more than a quarter million people and threaten more than $60 billion in infrastructure in the Bay/Delta region where both the San Francisco and Oakland airport are built on filled wetlands, as is the town house where I live, come to think of it.
Still, for the next few decades it’s extreme storminess, waves, and king tides, not sea-level rise, that will have the most impact according to another USGS scientist, Patrick Barnard, who testified in front of the Ocean Protection Council in Sacramento while it was formulating its strategic plan. Barnard notes that with stronger winds linked to warming seas, ocean waves are getting bigger with an increase in the size of extreme waves in the Pacific Northwest of about ten feet in the last decade. Cowabunga! For more on killer waves, climate change, and what it means for surfers see Susan Casey’s book The Wave.
Globally, ocean surface temperatures in the summer of 2009 were the warmest since record keeping began in 1880. Planetwide, nine of the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. The tenth record breaker was 1998. The hottest decade on record was the one ending in 2009, although if trends continue, the one ending in 2019 will be even hotter. Why all this isn’t bigger news is explained by former Wall Street Journal editor Frank Allen who says, “Environmental stories don’t break, they ooze.”
“This is not something that people are worrying about right now, so there’s only so much you can do till they do,” says Sam Schuchat, executive director of the state-run California Coastal Conservancy and secretary of the Ocean Protection Council. “You would think about air pollution when it got to where you started coughing leaving your house and you’d think about water pollution when the Cuyahoga River caught fire (in Cleveland in 1969). That’s when people got serious. Or with oil it took a disaster like the Santa Barbara spill. If it’s an issue off in the future it’s kind of like earthquake preparedness, only [with climate impacts] we don’t even have the benefit of occasional 4.5 tremors to remind people that it’s coming.”
Still, the state of California, having learned to adjust and adapt to major earthquakes, mudslides, fires, and occasional civil unrest, remains ahead of the rest of the nation in preparing for the inevitable impacts of fossil-fuel-fired climate change.