By CHRISTIAN WHITTLE
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
The Santa Barbara City Council received a report on the city’s potential vulnerability to hazards associated with a rising sea level Tuesday, which laid out the process and timeline for adaptive planning and implementation over the next few years.
The Sea-Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment And Upcoming Adaptation Plan Process was presented by project planner Melissa Hetrick.
“The seas off of Santa Barbara to date have only risen a few inches, and so I get asked a lot why are we planning now for sea-level rise,” said Ms. Hetrick. “The answer is in the coming decades the rate of sea-level rise is expected to accelerate significantly, and adapting to sea-level rise is going to require significant planning and financing. We have the most adaptation options now while we have some time to plan for the impacts of sea-level rise.”
California’s current sea-level rise projections for the Santa Barbara area are 0.8 feet by 2030, 2.5 feet by 2060 and 6.6 feet by 2100, according to a staff report.
Ms. Hetrick informed the Council of several federal, state, and local efforts to prepare for sea-level rise that are ongoing. All efforts are based off of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal Storm Modeling System. One such effort is a sea-level rise assessment now required for most state permits, including coastal development permits.
Since 2018, the city has been developing an adaptation plan that provides a planning framework and options to address increased flooding and erosion hazards.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first of three council meetings planned for this year regarding the Sea-Level Rise Adaptation Plan.
In February, a draft of the plan will be released for public review, with recommendations for mitigating the impacts of sea-level rise. The plan will provide a framework for the city to closely monitor sea-level rise impacts and reduce vulnerabilities in phases as specific thresholds for action determined by the state of California are reached.
“It analyzes in detail adaptation options such as sea-walls, beach nourishment. It pretty much casts a very wide net looking at a number of adaptation strategies,” said Ms. Hetrick.
The plan will also include fiscal and economic impacts, and will include recommendations for necessary actions in the next 10 years and a structure for decision-making and further study in the mid- and long-term.
Between February and April, staff will conduct extensive public outreach and solicit comments on the Adaptation Plan at public workshops, meetings with stakeholders and meetings with the city’s advisory bodies.
If no action is taken, the rise could result in increased flooding and erosion hazards on more than 1,250 parcels in the city due to shoreline and bluff erosion, tidal inundation, storm waves, and coastal storm flooding, Ms. Hetrick reported.
If the sea level does rise 2.5 feet, a number of areas and city infrastructure will be affected, said Ms. Hetrick. Bluff erosion is expected to affect infrastructure at Shoreline Park, portions of Shoreline Drive, and properties in bluff-top residential neighborhoods. The effects of 2.5 feet of sea-level rise could impede most harbor functions. If sea-level rises to 6.6 feet, the harbor would be unusable without reconstruction.
“The harbor really is at the front line of these impacts, so you will see with the adaptation plan that the near-term recommendations are fairly detailed with regard to the harbor because it’s really one of the areas where we need to start looking at raising the break-water, raising the marinas, raising the sidewalks, and things like that sooner than later,” said Ms. Hetrick.
Although much of the city will not be directly affected by the rise, a 6.6-foot rise in sea level would render El Estero Water Resource Center permanently inoperable as currently designed, which would impact wastewater service and recycled water service, according to the staff report.
Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez was concerned about having the city’s industrial area with hazardous elements and wastewater treatment in the area that will be heavily affected by sea-level rise.
“I know that these institutions that are located there have been there over 100 years, but we should all be mindful that we should start reaching out to them and working with them and helping them to relocate at some point soon. I know that’s easier said than done, but I feel that it’s pretty imperative, because it only seems like it’s getting worse,” said Mr. Gutierrez.
Although there are hazardous materials in the area, city, state, and federal agencies regularly collaborate on clean-up and maintenance in the city’s industrial area ever since the 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake, said Ms. Hetrick.
“These maps are daunting on a lot of different policy issues. This is a 2100, give or take, event, so we’ve got some time to start planning,” said City Administrator Paul Casey.
Councilmember Eric Freidman acknowledged that the situation was overwhelming, but said the Council will continue working with staff and the community as they had been to protect the city and its coast, with special attention to the wastewater treatment plant.
“If you want to find any way, a quick way to make a community unlivable, it’s to have a wastewater treatment plant that doesn’t work. There is no plan B if you don’t have one,” said Mr. Freidman.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge ahead. Like I said, it is overwhelming, but I think we’re up for it. I think our community is up for it.”