Robb Fulcher

Climate change could submerge homes and businesses in Hermosa and Redondo beaches

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A map prepared by the Pacific Institute shows the ocean (blue) submerging western stretches of Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach by 2100. (The pink line indicates a coastal zone boundary and the red lines indicate U.S. highways.)

By the dawn of the next century the Pacific Ocean could swamp King Harbor and ring the 52-acre AES power plant in standing water, submerge Hermosa Beach’s sparkling Pier Plaza, and soak homes and businesses a couple of blocks inland to Hermosa Avenue.

That’s the view of modelers mulling the prediction by scientists that worldwide sea levels will rise — unevenly from landmass to landmass — as much as 55 inches by the year 2100. They blame unchecked greenhouse gasses, which will heat up the earth’s atmosphere and melt the polar icecaps.

Manhattan Beach, where the land slopes up sharply from the sand to the Strand, fares better under the 55-inch scenario, with the ocean stopping just short of the westernmost line of homes. Perhaps even Mother Nature is loath to savage that city’s seemingly indestructible property values.

While the ocean is hemming in the beach cities, scientists believe that heat-induced droughts will be drying up the drinkable water all around, leaving area residents in the position of poetry’s Ancient Mariner, with too much salt water and not enough to drink.

Glub, glub

Scientists stress the uncertainty of their climate change predictions, but the alarm they have long sounded is increasingly spread by such practical-minded folks as urban planners and the big boys of the insurance industry. The 55-inch sea-level rise scenario is predominates among many long-term planners, but some scientists foresee a smaller rise of as little as 22 inches.

At a May symposium in Redondo, Sean B. Hecht, the executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center, said Lloyd’s of London and other large “re-insurers” — which insure the insurance companies against losses — are mulling the specter of wildfires, flooding, storms and rising seas. Urban planners are rethinking the wisdom of dense development on the coastlines.

“Sea level rise has accelerated over the past 20 years, a trend that in the coming years is expected to increase, as a result of melting ice caps and glaciers and expanding water volume, with potentially serious consequences for natural and human communities,” states a report by a task force of the Pacific Council on International Policy. The broadly assembled task force includes scientists, environmentalists and officials from equity funds, farming, law, civil engineering, municipal planning and business leadership.

Scientists say a century-long trend of rising sea levels is accelerating, and the seas could rise five times faster this century. Graphic courtesy Pacific Council on International Policy

The report notes that sea levels have risen steadily, a total of about 10 inches, over the past century, and the seas would rise more than five times faster during this century, under the 55-inch scenario.

“Should this occur, it would dramatically alter coastal landscapes, shoreline habitat, and wetlands,” the report states.

“Flooding of low-lying homes and commercial and industrial development – not just along the 1,100 mile open ocean coastline, but along extensively built-up shorelines and floodplains across the state – could cause financial hardships,” the report states.

“From the waterways of San Francisco Bay to the floodplains in the Central Valley, to the southernmost port in San Diego, all could be affected.”

What to do

Scientists say the long-lasting effects of a heated atmosphere will be difficult to combat, in part because the effects of greenhouse gas emissions from cars and other sources are not realized until 30 years after they are spewed. But the task force recommends coastal measures such as well-planned setbacks and “rolling easements,” which are legal agreements that limit development in vulnerable areas, stepped up monitoring of rising sea levels and erosion of seaside bluffs, and greater education for civic planners and managers.

“Similar to how coastal planners have come to incorporate projections of population growth and economic changes into coastal community planning, they now must also assume that the coastline in most places will be receding, beach landscapes shifting, and species and wetlands trying to move inland as the ocean rises,” the task force report states.

The task force also suggests new state laws requiring the disclosure of climate-change risks “in the process of buying or developing coastal properties.”

“A better approach should be taken in coastal development with those wishing to develop or purchase a home or business in areas potentially affected by sea level rise, erosion, and flooding,” the task force report states.

The task force recommends that coastal flood insurance be made mandatory, expensive enough to “reflect the actual risk” to the insured, and include long-term price guarantees for the insured. Government agencies subsidize some insurance to encourage development and business starts, but the task force cautions that coastal flood and erosion insurance should not be subsidized so much that the insurance funds become unstable.

In a sign of the times, the California Coastal Commission required that a 4,000 square-foot Harbor Patrol building under construction at KingHarbor stand on a base tall enough to accommodate the rising sea level, Redondo Councilman Bill Brand said.

Turning east

Hecht, with his talk of wildfires, flooding and storms, opens a window onto the full potential of climate change to attack the beach cities by land and air as well as by sea.

Left unchecked, rising seas will cause saltwater to seep into aquifers, while rising temperatures from trapped greenhouse gasses make the delivery of drinking water less regular and predictable, according to an August report prepared by scientists, environmentalists and civic officials for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“There is also a likelihood that conditions will be drier and that less water will be available” the report stated, adding draught scenarios to the salted aquifers.

The Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego projects that by 2100 the state’s total snow pack will have dried up 60 to 80 percent. The reduction in the High Sierra snow pack could costCaliforniaone quarter of its naturally stored water supplies.

The task force concludes that the state has made “significant though insufficient investment in water system improvements and protection over the past two decades,” and Sacramento plans new initiatives to monitor and protect our water supplies.

Locally, Hermosa and Manhattan have joined other area cities in passing ordinances designed to reduce residents’ water use, a move that is applauded by scientists, environmentalists and the state government.

Local residents already are conserving water, as seen in figures kept for Hermosa and Redondo, which are smushed together into one district by their water retail agency.

Over the 10 years from 2001 to 2010, Herondoans consumed 136 gallons per person per day. And they used less of that water over the second half of that decade, consuming 129 gallons per person per day between 2006 and 2010.

“We are seeing water use on a per capita basis trending down over time,” said Ken Jenkins, conservation manager for California Water Service Company.

The agency’s goals for the district are 134 gallons per person per day by 2015, and 126 gallons by 2020.

In Manhattan Beach, water use dipped significantly in 2010, with the trend continuing this year. The month of February saw Manhattanites use only 126 million gallons, and the warmer month of May saw an increase to only 163 million gallons.

The City of Manhattan Beach uses reclaimed water for most of its parks, street-median planters and schools, and like Hermosa, has installed equipment such as low-flush toilets and waterless urinals.

On a broader scale, some California water agencies are incorporating climate change scenarios into their long range planning.

Nobel laureate Don Wuebbles, endowed professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, addresses a climate change symposium in Redondo.

Robert J. Lempert, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and director of the Rand Corporation’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition, told the Redondo symposium that the Inland Empire Utilities Agency has a 25-year plan with “signposts” that will appear if significant climate-change effects are occurring.

The signposts would trigger greater efforts to recycle water and recapture ground water. If the signposts do not appear, the contingencies would not be triggered.

Randalso was helping the MWD prepare a report looking forward to 2060, which will include signposts and contingencies of its own, Lempert said.

Thirsty throats

Nevertheless, the Pacific Council task force warns of water shortages caused by decreased water supply, more frequent and extreme flooding, longer, drier droughts, and the aforementioned salt water intrusions into the drinking water aquifers.

At the same time, the demand for water is predicted to rise because of increased evaporation rates that will cause plants to require more water to survive, increased demand for energy to cool homes, businesses and industries, and increases in population. The state Department of Finance has estimated that the population will nearly double to 90 million by 2100, with most of the increase in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

The task force recommends protecting groundwater supplies through stricter regulations on pollutants, and taking steps to increase conservation and efficiency throughout the state.

An average household in California consumes 240 gallons of water daily, compared to the nationwide average of 170 gallons a day, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

The task force also recommends expanding the recycling of waste water, storm and flood water, which represent “a potential untapped supply of water, particularly in coastal urban areas of the state.”

“Coastal cities and counties are focused not only on sea level rise and inundation, but on severe storms, rising temperatures, reduction in the quantity and quality of water supply, damage to marine and other ecosystems, decline in air quality and health challenges – all critical issues for discussion and strategic decisions,” said Judy Mitchell, chair of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments.

Into the air

The California Energy Commission, which has been designated a clearinghouse of climate change research affecting the state, says much of the ongoing warming of the planet is caused by “human activities,” primarily burning fossil fuels and clearing forests, which release carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, trapping heat that would otherwise escape into space.

The emissions remain in the atmosphere for many years – 100 years, in the case of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has risen more than 30 percent since pre-industrial times, and if not mitigated, could reach levels three times higher than pre-industrial times by about 2100.

Scientists believe that the maximum amount of carbon dioxide with the planet can support in its atmosphere is 350 parts per million. That rate was exceeded in 1990, “surpassing the levels predicted by even the most pessimistic models,” according to a commission report. The current level is 388 parts per million, resulting in accelerated arctic warming and glaciers melting.”

Gas-powered cars and denuded forests are not the only causes of trapped heat in the atmosphere. Human emissions of methane and nitrous oxide contribute almost half as much warming as do our carbon dioxide emissions.

Facing forward

Hermosa Councilman Jeff Duclos, a longtime environmental activist and former chairman of the Surfrider Foundation, said he considers climate change science “a major consideration” in his city’s push to achieve carbon neutrality through requirements for green building, restricted water use, recycling of demolished construction components, subsidized fees for solar and wind power, and the erection of electric-car charging stations.

Hermosa also was the first area city to sign on to an international Cool Cities pledge to reduce its carbon footprint. The city won a recent water conservation challenge sponsored by the Wyland Foundation.

“If we go back to the philosophy of thinking globally and acting locally, that is the best way to affect the changes we need in our environment,” he said.

He pointed to a report by the South Bay Cities Council of Governments report that suggests the use of “neighborhood electric vehicles” for 10 to 20 mile trips. The vehicles look like sturdier golf carts and can go 25 mph with a practical range of 30 miles.

“I see them all around town now. My neighbor has one,” Duclos said. “Those trips of 20 miles or less are breaking our backs.”

Duclos said Southern Californians can be persuaded to rethink the tendency to hop into a car, pointing to residents’ willingness to avoid driving during the 1984 Olympic Games and the recent “Carmageddon” closure of on 405 Freeway.

“We are at the cusp of a significant behavioral shift that will occur, and has to occur,” he said.

The economic downturn, and a recovery veiled in uncertainties, can represent “a huge opportunity for us to rethink the way we live, the way we move from one place to another.”

Duclos also pointed to ongoing efforts to make Hermosa “more walk-able.”

“We have to take our philosophical commitments and translate them into action,” he said. “The benefits we can see as a community are immediate. Even the smallest of acts, as long as we are moving in the right direction, can multiply community by community and make a difference.”

Duclos said the ongoing Vitality Cities project, which promotes lifestyle changes to shed pounds and lengthen the lives of beach cities residents, shows a clear link between “environmental health and physical well being.”

“We learned that, although we live in an idyllic beach community, and we are angrier than they are in Detroitand more stressed out than they are in New Orleans,” Duclos said, referring to results of a survey conducted by the Gallup/Healthways Well Being Index and used by Vitality Cities. “Part of that is because we drive the freeways in a place called L.A. – think of all that time we waste and spend trying to get from point A to point B, and what that does to us physiologically and psychologically.”

Living life as locally as possible – bicycling, walking, driving small electric vehicles – benefits the individual organism as well as the larger social one, he said.

“To live longer, live healthier, these things also are steps on the path to creating the environment we all really want. You can see [greenhouse gas] reduction as a residual benefit,” Duclos said.

Area-wide, Duclos said an effort to link seven SouthBaycities with a bicycling master plan shows a “phenomenal” cooperation between jurisdictions in a carbon friendly endeavor.

Redondo Councilman Brand said climate change science helps inform his positions on environment-related issues, including his desire to convert the AES power plant into parkland.

He said the plant stands to undergo nine years of new construction, which would include the building of cooling towers or other facilities that would be needed now that the plant will not be allowed to use Pacific Ocean water to cool itself.

Brand looks at the impacts of construction, and emissions from the plant, and envisions a big park instead.

“The whole South Bay is park poor,” he said. “And we don’t need the power. [The plant] generates so little power now, there’s really no need for it.”

Brand said he wants Redondo to join its beach cities neighbors with a water conservation ordinance, but he added that the city has launched a number of environmentally friendly endeavors, such as improvements to the Saphire Street storm drain at the beach, installing energy-saving LED lights in city-owned lampposts, and capturing and re-circulating water at AltaVista Park.

Duclos said little Hermosa, with its population of about 19,000, could represent the wave of the future in many ways.

“I think Hermosa Beach is well positioned to create what can be considered an attractive model for the city of the future – dense urban centers where all the things people need are readily available nearby, places that will attract the creators and entrepreneurs of the future, with the beach and places to eat within walking distance, and a vibrant nightlife scene that’s considered important for young professionals,” Duclos said. “Potentially, we can be a city that has it all.”

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