IMPERIAL BEACH, California — Up and down the California coast, city officials are thinking about the threat of sea level rise — but for Imperial Beach, a small city of 27,000 residents just south of San Diego, that threat isn’t a distant one: The city already deals with repeated, or what many city workers distressingly call "routine," flooding.
“We live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet,” said Imperial Beach resident Shawn Gould, as ocean water filled the garage under his condo.
A year ago, Gould and his wife decided to move into a beachfront property in Imperial Beach. Now, they’re getting used to putting sandbags around their home. “The ocean is going to win,” Gould said as he sipped from his morning coffee on the steps of his back porch. He was waiting out the flood, which would subside hours later.
This January’s "king tide," an extreme high tide that’s natural, caused the flooding near Gould’s home. King tides happen once or twice a year because of a specific alignment of the sun, earth, and moon. But because of rising sea levels, they’re now getting noticeably worse and causing residents to confront a problem that will soon be widespread. And residents aren't always happy with the proposed solutions.
This year, the city’s budget totaled $19 million, which pales in comparison with the whopping $100 million that the projected six feet of sea level rise is expected to cost the city by 2100. To prepare for increased flooding damage, officials in Imperial Beach commissioned a study that would offer solutions.
One of those solutions introduced a term that’s since become controversial: “managed retreat.” This approach means that the city would remove public infrastructure like sea walls and sewer pumps near the water and eventually acquire properties that got too damaged to live in. But to a lot of residents, managed retreat meant the government was going to force people out of their homes, which has caused some tension.
“We don't surrender. We never surrender. You know, I was in the Marine Corps,” said Dante Pamintuan, a resident of Imperial Beach who worries that the city could one day seize private property against residents’ wishes. He thinks there are better ways to deal with the problem, which he said isn’t a problem at all but a part of “God’s creation.” The city should instead focus on stopping the flooding with barriers, like sand, Pamintuan said.
On Jan. 25, a few days after our interview with him, the city released an updated version of its plan, which basically consists of a retreat from managed retreat. In the report, the city states that it “does not consider it a viable or necessary adaptation strategy.” Instead, the city will stick to its current strategy of adding sand to the beach and keeping up existing shoreline protections.
Cities all along the California coast are soon going to experience debates just like the one in Imperial Beach — and that’s something state officials are still coming to terms with. “It's a work in progress, and I think it's proven to be more difficult than we maybe originally assessed,” said Gabe Buhr, coastal aity program manager at the California Coastal Commission.
To encourage local governments to voluntarily plan for sea level rise, the coastal commission told VICE News that it has awarded nearly $7 million in grants. There's no legal penalty for cities that don't come up with a plan, however, the commission told VICE News.
“There's so many different stakeholders and people involved; it's not as simple as just saying, ‘OK, go ahead and map your vulnerabilities, and then come in and pick a solution that is going to work for everybody," Buhr said. “You're dealing with a massive ocean of sea level rise, and the solutions aren't going to be just really easy solutions.”
Additional reporting by Lee Doyle.
This segment originally aired Feb. 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.