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“Hopefully we can persevere as a species”: Central Coast cities face rising sea level

Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County

We often hear broadly about the impacts of climate change across the globe. But what about the changes we are seeing right here in our own backyard? We’re seeing more extreme weather events, recurring drought years and more devastating wildfires.

Now the latest national report on sea level rise projects the San Luis Obispo coastline will see anywhere from one to seven feet of rise by the year 2100.

Much of San Luis Obispo County’s coastline sits on a coastal terrace, about 85 feet above sea level. Those areas shouldn’t see as much of an immediate impact from sea level rising. But a number of low-lying coastal areas are expected to take a hit.

Central Coast Meteorologist John Lindsey said if sea level rises an average of about 3.5 feet by 2100, some areas in SLO County may be entirely underwater, while others may see more frequent flooding events or erosion.

NOAA projects sea level at Port San Luis could rise anywhere from one to seven feet by the year 2100.
NOAA projects sea level at Port San Luis could rise anywhere from one to seven feet by the year 2100.

“Especially here where the Museum of Natural History in Morro Bay is located at," Lindsey said. "You can see at the Morro Bay Golf Course — that whole area is flooded out.”

Other areas in Cambria and Los Osos are predicted to see similar impacts. Some places, like Cayucos, are already seeing changes from sea level rise.

“During periods of large wave events, the Veteran’s building can actually have some impacts there,” Lindsey said.

Avila Beach is also seeing impacts to its infrastructure.

“We’re already seeing in the parking lot here during high tide, a lot of times the parking lot now will flood,” Lindsey said.

A trailer park along Meadow Creek in Pismo Beach is one area that Lindsey said may be particularly vulnerable.

"I think trailers are twelve feet high, or so, but the bases of those trailers would be partially covered,” Lindsey said.

He said it’s important to remember these impact predictions are averages based on estimates.

“If this was to happen during high tide with a lot of storm runoff, storm surge and high wind generated waves, then this could be much worse,” Lindsey said.

Lindsay said we can, and should, do everything possible to keep sea level rise from getting worse. But, at this point, there’s no avoiding it entirely. Coastal communities across the state are already dealing with dangerous impacts.

Thomas Wilmer

Cliffside Bay Area homes are teetering on the edge of bluffs, some deemed unsafe to continue occupying. Some low-lying Southern California homes are seeing yearly flooding.

Morro Bay City Manager Scott Collins said the city’s 20 year Local Coastal Plan was certified by the Coastal Commission last year and outlines a path forward for dealing with sea level rise.

“It’s going to hit everybody at some point and our hope is that, A, we do enough on the front end to plan for it and, B, we take measured action, but consistent measured action, to slow this down,” Collins said.

It talks about everything from installing sea walls to raising vulnerable waterfront buildings. It also considers things like managed retreat or deed restrictions, which would require property owners to agree to remove any extra structural developments on a building if sea level rises to a point where it's threatened.

The city’s Community Development Director Scot Graham said their plan is progressive and serves as a model for other coastal cities. Still, he said planning for the future is challenging and he wishes they started planning decades earlier.

“There’s a lot of communities that aren’t doing anything. That’s what frightens me, I guess," Graham said. "If you’re behind the curve now and you're not doing anything related to climate change or you're in a coastal community and you're not doing anything related to sea level rise, you’re behind the ball.”

Meanwhile, the City of Pismo Beach is in the middle of updating their Local Coastal Plan. Community Development Director Matt Downing said they’re looking at a lot of the same strategies that Morro Bay is considering. He said coastal erosion is a big consideration as a number of homes and public spaces are along the edge of the bluff.

“If you build along the bluff, eventually your house won’t be there any more.”

Hal Sweasey has been practicing real estate on the Central Coast for more than 30 years. He said his clients haven't expressed concern about the impact of sea level rise on the long-term investment of a waterfront home.

NOAA estimates more than 750 people in SLO County live in low-lying areas that are the first to be impacted by sea level rise.
NOAA estimates more than 750 people in SLO County live in low-lying areas that are the first to be impacted by sea level rise.

“If there is a worry, they’re just not buyers," Sweasey said. "And it hasn’t been enough of a concern to really impact the flow of buyers and hence the values.”

Similar to Morro Bay’s plans, Pismo Beach isn’t freezing property development right now. Instead, Downing said the city is looking at helping property owners understand the risks, responsibility and options for safe structural additions.

Sweasey said because the biggest impacts of sea level rise are not yet here, buyers don’t seem to be thinking about what could happen to their property 50 years from now.

“I think people look five or ten years down the road but I [think], generally, we as a culture, don’t look that far ahead,” Sweasey said.

Lindsay said, from a planning perspective, communities should be looking that far ahead.

Collins said planning for the impacts of climate change is critical for the future of local communities.

"Hopefully we can persevere as a species,” Collins said.

This report is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020, reporting daily for KCBX News until she moved to the Pacific Northwest in July of 2022. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.