Will Imperial Beach, California, retreat from a rising sea?

By Ruxandra Guidi | October 17, 2018

In 2014, high seas reached the surfer statue at the end of Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by High Country News. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

At the start of each year, Southern California gets a glimpse into a future of rising seas, through an annual event called the king tide. On that day, the sun, moon and Earth align to create a heavy gravitational pull, leading to the highest tides of the year. If “king tide” sounds ominous, that’s because it is, particularly for a city like Imperial Beach, a small coastal town near the Mexican border surrounded by water on three sides: San Diego Bay to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Tijuana River Delta to the south.

In 2010, a powerful El Niño storm hurled the king tide over Imperial Beach’s sand berms and onto Seacoast Drive, where the city’s higher-priced condos are located. In 2015, another El Niño year, the king tide raised the surf from 3 to 7 feet, tearing sand away from the beach and flooding the city with salt water that soaked the streets for days.

Currently an anomaly, the king tide is a portent of things to come. Researchers warn that, due to myriad factors including the Earth’s rotation, California will deal with even higher sea-level rise than other locations, as the atmosphere and oceans warm. The oceans are now rising at a faster rate than any time since the last Ice Age, about half an inch or more per decade. While much of this is understood by researchers and informed readers, very little has been done by coastal cities to confront this slow-moving catastrophe. That is what makes Imperial Beach so interesting. Here, at the southernmost beach town in California, in an obscure corner of the United States, one small city is asking: What if we just got out of nature’s way?

Imperial Beach was founded in 1887, as a summertime haven of cooler weather for California farmers, laborers and landowners. Today, it has more than 26,000 people, about half of them Latinos, living on a postage stamp of 4.5 square miles. In winter, it’s a surfer town, where wave-riders take advantage of Pacific swells that push against a long stretch of uncrowded beach and produce long, unfurling right- and left-hand breaks.

On a chilly, windy morning last January, after the night’s fog had lifted, I visited Imperial Beach, joining about 20 people for a tour of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve at the southern edge of town. It was king tide, and I wanted to see for myself what rising seas might bring to California 50 years from now. Like many pockets of nature on California’s coast, the reserve was a respite from freeways, traffic and high-rises. A dirt path snaked through wild buckwheat and broom baccharis along a salt marsh, where two great egrets flew gracefully to their nests. About 350 different bird species live or pass through the estuary, where the Tijuana River meets the Pacific.

Our walk ended at the edge of the estuary, on Seacoast Drive. Up and down the street, condominiums were posted for sale, with prices ranging from $600,000 to well above $1 million. At the end of the street, however, where the rising tide was starting to flood by a few inches, the prices had been reduced. (In 30 to 50 years, about 90 percent of Seacoast Drive will be under water.) By 9 a.m., the tide had risen to about 8.5 inches, covering the desert saltgrass to its tips; the year before, it had risen a foot, swallowing the estuary path. A public works employee appeared and began sweeping the pooling water down the street to a culvert.

A few minutes later, the mayor arrived. At almost 6-and-a-half-feet tall, 54-year-old Serge Dedina cut an unconventional figure for a small-town public official: His hair was bleached blond by the sun, and he sported a casual pair of jeans and sneakers. He shook my hand, wishing me a happy new year before switching gears to talk about flooding.

“Fortunately, this year is not as bad as the last one,” he told me, staring at the puddles of encroaching seawater. He scrolled through his smartphone, producing a photo of a very flooded Seacoast Drive, taken the year before and from the same perspective. “And definitely, it’s not as bad now as when we had El Niño.”

A former lifeguard and lifelong surfer, Dedina has been concerned about climate change since the 1980s, when he first heard the term in graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a teenager, Dedina led a homegrown group of surfers to campaign against a breakwater that would have drastically changed the coast along Imperial Beach. Soon after, he joined the effort to keep this very estuary from becoming a marina — a fight for an open natural ecosystem that would prove crucial to the future of the city.

Before becoming mayor in 2014, Dedina led a local nonprofit called Wildcoast, of which he remains the executive director. Wildcoast is a bi-national organization that helps establish and manage protected areas in the U.S. and Mexico. In Imperial Beach, Dedina is renowned for his targeted activism, as well as for building successful partnerships across the two countries to pressure the Mexican government to protect the San Lorenzo Marine Archipelago National Park and the San Ignacio Lagoon, a gray whale breeding zone. But Dedina was facing a completely different challenge now. He wanted the people of Imperial Beach to confront the reality of sea-level rise head-on.

He had only been in office a year the last time El Niño hit, in 2015, but, sensing an opportunity to get locals engaged in climate change and its impacts, he called for a public meeting. His office circulated a flier, encouraging people to “take a leadership role by helping your community address coastal flooding issues.” Around 400 residents, including city staff, attended the meeting inside the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. People wanted to know how their city was preparing for the next El Niño, and, more importantly, what they could do in the event of even bigger waves and rising seas. They knew from king tides past what rising waters can do, but they were in for a harsh lesson. Depending on how well humanity does at slowing global warming, researchers predict sea levels will rise between 1.6 feet and 6.5 feet globally over the next century. By the time they left the meeting, residents had learned that about a third of Imperial Beach could be underwater in as little as 50 years.

“It was a wake-up call,” Dedina told me. “The reality is, it’s not easy to get people to think about what’s going to happen in 100 years. But we did learn that the way to frame that discussion is through coastal flooding, because it’s less abstract and there are practical things you can do to address it.”

Broadly speaking, though, those practical things are limited. According to the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, a city can undertake one of several strategies: Build a barrier, armor the coast with levees and seawalls, elevate land, create “living shorelines” to absorb flooding and slow erosion, or retreat. This last strategy, “managed retreat,” SPUR warns, “is a political quagmire. It involves tremendous legal and equity issues, because not all property owners are willing sellers. And in many places, shoreline communities are already disadvantaged and lack the adaptive capacity to relocate.”

It is into this quagmire that Dedina has decided to wade.

Other cities have proven unwilling to take on the idea of managed retreat, mostly because the very mention of it can tank real estate prices. Besides, there are alternatives. A favorite in California is sand replenishment, where sand is added to a beach as a buffer against rising tides, erosion and other natural forces. Six years ago, Imperial Beach added 300,000 cubic yards of large-grain sand across four miles of beachfront. But the practice has many critics: Waves, tides and currents can wash the sand away, and what remains can damage or destroy ecosystems. Surfers hate it because it alters breaks — and, indeed, Imperial Beach has seen fewer surfers since it added sand. “Sand replenishment is lame,” a surfer named Brian Valdez told me when I caught up with him after a morning session. “But I bet it’ll be impossible to find a California beach without it in the future.”

Dedina does not see a future in sand. His city, he believes, will have to do what was once unthinkable: It will have to retreat. Managed retreat represents a planned move away from the coast, allowing the beach to erode for the forces of nature to take over. This, of course, is a gargantuan task. How does a city take all the homes and businesses along its coast and relocate them inland? It has never been done in the Western U.S. before, certainly not on the scale that would be needed — even for a city as small as Imperial Beach.

“This is all new to us,” Dedina said, as we chatted one day in his office. He showed me what a retreat looked like on a map: a ribbon of color, one to three city blocks deep, that covered Imperial Beach’s entire coast. “Cities are inherently very conservative places, but we decided that it would be unwise to be conservative in this situation,” he said. “Our only future lies in being innovative and taking risks, because the risk of not taking a risk is very great.”

When Dedina came into office, he sought foundation and state money to pay for Imperial Beach’s climate action plan. With help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, Dedina was able to identify how managed retreat might play out: Seashore developments would need to relocate three blocks inland, while the city as a whole would need to create more density or rebuild some structures, roads and larger infrastructure, including storm-drain basins and schools.

Imperial Beach’s current coastal plan doesn’t take into account findings from a 2016 study that projects how much the sea will rise over time. The city is hoping to update its coastal plan, with input from the community.

The adaptation measure isn’t solely Dedina’s idea. Over the past decade, it’s become an important statewide initiative, championed by the California Coastal Commission and the Surfrider Foundation, which have been proposing state laws and coastal development policies designed to make owning and maintaining vulnerable oceanfront properties cost-prohibitive. Some of those new policies ban all new development within 80 or 90 feet of a bluff’s edge, waive a city’s right to build seawalls, and allow public access to open beaches over private coastal property.

What comes next, however, is still something of a mystery. With a city budget of $19 million, Imperial Beach simply can’t afford to move. A retreat of three blocks would cost upwards of $150 million. Still, Dedina’s decision is straight-up revolutionary. It goes directly against the American principle of preserving private property at all costs, especially along the beachfront, where homes can be worth twice as much as their landlocked counterparts. It also represents an unusually humble response to the forces of nature, one that admits that we need to deal with the impacts of climate change, to quit fighting the surging waves that we ourselves unleashed.

Imperial Beach is unusual for California, and not just because of its conservationist-surfer mayor. It lacks the typical tourist traps, the piers with carnival rides and fancy beachfront restaurants. The properties facing its beaches are nowhere near as glitzy as wealthy beachfront communities like Malibu or Pacific Grove, which have invested heavily in expensive seawalls and offshore breakwaters. Seventy-one percent of Imperial Beach residents are renters, and one out of every five locals lives in poverty, even along the coast. The city lacks the estimated $100 million in taxpayer dollars that it would cost to try to prevent coastal erosion with the help of more berms and sand replenishment projects.

By facing the prospect of retreat, Imperial Beach is not just setting itself apart from other California seaside communities — it is challenging them. In May, Del Mar, 30 miles to the north, voted to adopt a sea-level rise adaptation plan. But it did so only as long as the words “managed retreat” were stricken from the document — a caveat demanded by local homeowners. Managed retreat there would allow the rising seas to reclaim the land and some 600 homes on it. “If we implemented management (sic) retreat and required those seawalls that exist today to come out and removed the front row of houses, the ocean would inundate all the way back to the railroad,” Del Mar’s mayor, Dwight Worden, said after the city council vote. “We’d lose the beach; we’d lose those homes.” Del Mar, he warned, would become “a lagoon.” The city decided on more sand replenishment.

“I can’t believe they’re doing that,” Dedina told me, soon after the vote. “They’re just sticking their head in the sand.”

And yet who can blame them? The prospect of a warmer future is one that humanity has failed to properly imagine — let alone address. Even in Imperial Beach, where the city has a plan, current residents seem disconnected from the impending future.

Katy’s Café is a favorite among Imperial Beach’s lifeguards and surfers. Its interior is covered in beach-themed memorabilia, and a sign by the entrance promises: “By the beach all your worries wash away.”

Katy Fallon, a petite blonde in her early 60s who has owned the café for 12 years, still sneaks out the back to surf two or three times a week. The shore, she told me, was a much more manageable place when she started surfing here more than three decades ago. Now the king tides flood her block each year, and sewage spills from Tijuana force the city to close the beaches on a regular basis. “I don’t feel I can truly do anything about sea-level rise or beach pollution,” Fallon told me, echoing other conversations I’d had here. “But fortunately, we now have a mayor fit for this town.”

Fallon was encouraged when Dedina took office and made the city’s first climate adaptation plan a priority. At first, she attended as many public meetings as she could. But then she got busy and stopped going. “I hate to say this, but when it comes to sea-level rise, I know I won’t be alive for the worst of it,” she told me, with an apologetic frown. “But it’s very scary.”

Under a managed retreat, in 30 or 50 or even 75 years, the two-level strip mall that houses Katy’s Café would face persistent flooding and would have to be moved between one and three blocks inland. But before that happens, Fallon’s landlord’s flood insurance premium would likely rise sharply, and so would his cleanup costs. In an ideal world, his flood insurance would kick in and pay for the move, but it’s more likely that the property would decline in value with each passing year, and that the insurance company would find a way to avoid reimbursing the property owner for such a massive move.

Two blocks south on Seacoast Drive, the owners of a six-story building are determined to stay put. The Pier South Resort, which was completed in 2013 under the previous mayor, cost $34 million, a fifth of which was invested by the city. It is Imperial Beach’s first fancy hotel, bringing in about a half-million dollars in revenue each year. It’s also the first building to include subterranean structural columns that create a sea wall. It’s unclear whether the hotel will set a precedent for other new — and expensive — beachfront developments, or, in a managed retreat future, become an island.

Of course, some still hope to safeguard their city. People like Dedina, and the McCoys. Patricia and Mike McCoy, now in their 80s, own a humble two-bedroom cottage on the northern edge of town, in a low-lying area a couple of blocks from the ocean. I sought them out because they were some of Imperial Beach’s first environmental stewards, instrumental in the preservation of the city’s first managed retreat site: the Tijuana River Estuary. They were a living testament to how difficult — and dangerous — managed retreat can be. On the sleepy, foggy day I met them, they sat side-by-side on a couch, their backs to a library full of books about nature and human civilization.

“What can I say? Humans are a brinksmanship type of species,” Patricia told me, recalling the years she and Mike worked to protect the largest estuarine system left in Southern California — one that had not yet been destroyed by freeways, railroads, power lines or sewers.

Back in the 1970s, developers had already been planning for decades to dredge the estuary, build a concrete channel and create an upscale marina. By the spring of 1974, plans for the marina were in full force. Imperial Beach’s mayor, Brian Bilbray, announced his proposal for a 1.5-mile breakwater over the estuary and a $200 million project that would house up to 7,000 people, a yacht club and commercial development.

“And then the developers realized we wanted to save the estuary, and they started to come after us,” Mike said.

The McCoys met with local, state and federal public officials and went door-to-door across Imperial Beach, organizing residents against the project, among them a teenage surfer named Serge Dedina. They settled on a strategy: They would convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take over the property.

In January of 1980, at the height of king tide season, the Tijuana River flooded, killing at least 10 people on the other side of the border and destroying much of the estuary on the US side. One day not long after that, the McCoys and their friend, Richard Raymond, a fellow activist, were taking a break at the local fire station after a cleanup event at the estuary, when four men walked into the building with guns. One of them shot Raymond in the face. The men took off in a car (none of them were ever identified or arrested) as Mike McCoy struggled to stabilize his friend. Raymond was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance and ultimately survived. Later that week, when the McCoys turned onto the freeway, they realized the lug nuts on their car tires had been loosened. At home, they fielded death threats over the phone, warning them to “quit doing what you are doing.”

That year, Imperial Beach voted in favor of the marina project. Soon after, however, Fish and Wildlife unexpectedly announced it was purchasing 500 acres of the estuary from the marina developer. The state of California joined the effort, and in early 1981 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chose to make the site a national sanctuary, thereby preserving that last stretch of coast and marsh.

The estuary represents an old-fashioned example of a kind of managed retreat, albeit retreat from a proposed development, not the movement of an entire edge of a city. Still, four decades after their fight began, the McCoys are fully aware that by saving their local estuary they set an important precedent for the city.

The latest projection by the Union of Concerned Scientists lays out a scary scenario, particularly for homeowners: Persistent flooding will lower property prices in some areas, while flood insurance premiums will rise. If insurers refuse to cover risky properties, the state will have to become an insurer of last resort. At least 100,000 beachfront homeowners across California face the risk of chronic flooding or worse by the end of this century. As its real estate values decrease, a city’s property tax base, which funds infrastructure, schools and climate-adaptation measures, will also shrink.

Given this, managed retreat makes a lot of sense. Yet I had a hard time finding locals who would fully endorse Dedina’s plan. I contacted six realtors and homeowners along Seacoast Drive, where Imperial Beach’s most expensive, and at-risk, properties are. Most refused to discuss the likelihood of a flooded future, fearful of saying anything that would jeopardize property values. But sea-level rise was on the minds of the five Imperial Beach residents I spoke to off the record, people who’d witnessed persistent flooding in their properties and who were either trying to sell or at least considering it.

This spring, I attended a “Resilient Imperial Beach” meeting, organized to engage residents and homeowners on Dedina’s coastal management plan. We were presented with various climate-adaptation options, including managed retreat and further sand replenishment. We were asked to fill out a form, answering questions like “What is the most important challenge facing the City?” and “What does preserving Imperial Beach’s small beach town character mean to you?” Then we were told to drop those forms off at a box by the back of the room. City council members stood around, ready to answer questions. The meeting was poorly attended; altogether, fewer than a dozen locals came.

Mike McCoy was there, though, along with his acquaintance, Joe Ellis, a tall and tan man who looked much younger than his 63 years. Ellis had worked for years with the Army Corps of Engineers on sand replenishment projects in Southern California. But he has come to see those efforts as mere stopgaps. “Once upon a time, after college, I also wanted to live by the beach,” he joked, when I told him no beachfront homeowners would agree to chat with me about managed retreat. “Unfortunately, climate change is political,” he added. “And a lot of the people who live by the coast are older, and they’re leaving these decisions to the next generation.”

As I left the meeting, I saw a large map of Imperial Beach mounted on an easel against the back wall. It showed about a third of the city awash in a bright royal blue — a blob of color that began at its contours, including Seacoast Drive, and expanded towards the middle. It showed the parts of town that will be underwater someday, including areas more than 10 blocks away from the coast today that house two of the city’s elementary schools and most of its working-class neighborhoods. As the sea level rises, flooding in Imperial Beach will affect more than the wealthier residents along the coast; it will touch everyone, regardless of location and class.

Like the McCoys back in the 1970s, Dedina is waging a huge environmental fight of his own, looking beyond Imperial Beach for possible answers and financial support. Last year, he took his fight to the courts, joining five other California cities and counties in a lawsuit against 37 oil and coal companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, arguing that they should be held responsible for the coastal flooding that will cause hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

“I don’t see any other way to address this,” he said, when I asked about the lawsuit as a last resort to help pay for his city’s managed retreat plan. “It’s a way to highlight the very unfair nature of how climate change is going to play out around the world, whether it’s in Micronesia or Mexico or Imperial Beach. This lawsuit is a vehicle to demonstrate our leadership, but also to identify those who caused it and make them pay up.”

Earlier this summer, US District Judge William Alsup dismissed the lawsuit, arguing that climate change impacts deserve a solution “on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury.” When I spoke to Dedina, he told me he hadn’t lost hope. The lawsuit had forced a public court proceeding on climate science and, at the very least, recognized that it is real and valid. Meanwhile, the city is moving ahead with its planned retreat, though on a considerably smaller scale: by identifying the best future stormwater drains and mitigation basins.

“First, we’re going for the low-hanging fruit,” Dedina said. “We have new storm-water regulations, so we want to upgrade them for the future.” But there are no solid plans yet for an eventual move inland. The money is not there. And city officials haven’t had a lot of conversations about this with homeowners yet.

“It’s very clear, in the long term, there really isn’t any other strategy that will work,” Dedina told me. “That’s something that people in the future are going to deal with, but we’re going to have to set the framework for that now.” We stood a block away from the shore, on a breezy, low-tide evening. Families strolled along the beach, and cars drove up and down Seacoast Drive. Along the pier, men were fishing, casting their lines into the peaceful, unrelenting, rising sea.

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Keywords: sea level rise
Topics: Climate Change

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