Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Imperial Beach, California
In the coming decades, beachfront properties in Imperial Beach, California, will face regular flooding. Photo by Susan Heller/Alamy Stock Photo

A Rising Sea Doesn’t Lift All Boats

Measures to avoid sea level rise that rely entirely on voluntary action threaten to exacerbate inequality.

Authored by

by Ramin Skibba

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With its scenic views, relaxing sea breeze, laid-back atmosphere, and strong surf, Imperial Beach, California, draws visitors every day of the year. But the city, sandwiched between San Diego and the Mexican border, is on the front lines of sea level rise.

“It’s concerning. I’ve got kids,” says Matt Murray, a real estate agent in Imperial Beach. When people looking for homes ask him about sea level rise, he warns them. “I tell them it’s low-lying coastal. But people want to live by the beach.”

Near the beach, the roads are filled with businesses like the Wave Cafe, Imperial Beach Buns, Surf Hut, and the Sand Castle Inn and Suites. Two other realty companies have their offices within a couple of blocks of Murray’s, and another is about to open. There’s no sign of a mass exodus. But in the coming decades, if little is done to avert global sea level rise, some Imperial Beach neighborhoods will be hit by regular flooding. By the end of the century, large parts of the city will be under water.

Yet demographics, like the sea, are also changing. Researchers led by R. Kyle Saunders, a sociologist at Florida State University, predict massive shifts in who lives on the coast by the end of the century. They have found that from California to Florida, coastal communities will have more seniors and more people of color, and often majority Latino populations. While plenty of people come and go, immigration and population growth drive the trends. It means that as the sea gradually and relentlessly rises, eroding cliffs and flooding and undermining property, more of the people in harm’s way will be from marginalized groups that potentially lack the resources to do something about it.

“Sea level rise is expected to impact these areas and these groups, but it’s more than just affecting currently vulnerable populations,” says Saunders. “We’re also arguing that sea level rise could be a new emerging form of inequality in the country.” Saunders’s study is based on an analysis of demographic trends in 437 coastal communities and will soon be submitted for peer review.

Officials in Imperial Beach are doing what they can to prepare for the nearly two meters of sea level rise that may afflict the city by the year 2100. But “nobody has the resources to deal with this at all,” says Mayor Serge Dedina. “We’re still a working-class-majority community.”

Imperial Beach has been considering a range options as officials update the city’s plans for adapting to rising seas, including building sea walls, replenishing beaches, and “managed retreat”—a plan to gradually move infrastructure and homes, and help finance people’s relocations to safer places.

Madeline Cavalieri, a program manager at the California Coastal Commission, advocates for the approach. “We know that many places over the next century will likely become uninhabitable,” she says. “Managed retreat strategies include this idea of refocusing new development in safe places that aren’t going to be vulnerable over their lifetime.”

Managed retreat offers a way out by cutting one’s losses at the most vulnerable places rather than spending increasingly large sums in possibly futile attempts to hold the line. But Dedina’s brief support for the controversial idea was met with a deluge of complaints. Some residents feared they’d be forced from their homes or that their property values would fall, so the proposal was scrapped. In nearby Del Mar, California, where median house prices are two and a half times higher than in Imperial Beach, officials never considered retreating as part of their plan, and the Coastal Commission might reject the plan for that reason. A city needs the commission’s approval for an adaptation plan to be adopted and to shape future development.

Residents of coastal California are aware of the problems posed by sea level rise, says Charles Colgan, an environmental policy expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California. But for now the threat still seems abstract and far off. “It takes three or four floods for people to say, okay, buy me out, I’m gone,” he says, adding that even though California hasn’t experienced that level of flooding yet, it’s coming and will be within the homeownership period of many of the people opposing managed retreat now.

Like people living in hurricane-prone Miami, Florida, or wildfire areas like Paradise, California, residents of soon-to-be submerged coastal areas like Imperial Beach will be faced with a choice: move out or face the growing risk of losing property. In all of these places, the costs of staying and rebuilding will rise. “As the hazard and damages increase because of climate change and because we keep putting more property in harm’s way, the price of [restoration] goes up,” Colgan says. “Eventually there’s not going to be enough money and that’s when people are going to wake up.”

When the time comes, those with the means will leave. But if retreat is strictly voluntary, not everyone may be able to make that same choice, especially when poorer coastal communities don’t have support for retreating.

Dedina says state and federal governments need to spend more time and effort working closely with communities to address the problem. “It shouldn’t just be the survival of the strongest, or the wealthiest.”