Opinion

Could your SLO County home be wiped out as seas rise? Here’s how to find out

See how sea-level rise could affect the San Francisco Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most vulnerable parts of California to sea level rise. See how the bay would expand during high tide under different scenarios.
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The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most vulnerable parts of California to sea level rise. See how the bay would expand during high tide under different scenarios.

For coastal residents worried that rising sea levels linked to climate change could threaten their homes — or prospective homebuyers who want to avoid risk — online tools can help.

Zillow, an online real estate database company, and Climate Central, a nonprofit organization of scientists and journalists, have teamed up to provide risk maps.

The Surging Seas Risk Finder (riskfinder.climatecentral.org) lets users enter a location, select a water level and choose among a variety of scenarios.

For San Luis Obispo County, the news isn’t nearly as bad as for some other parts of the West Coast.

Here are some of the forecasts, which are based on elevation data, scientific projections of sea level rise, plus modeling of reductions in greenhouse gases.

A 3-foot sea level rise accompanied by a major flooding would threaten 30 homes valued at $38 million: 12 in Los Osos; 10 in Pismo Beach; 4 in Morro Bay; and 2 each in Cayucos and Cambria.

A 6-foot rise and major flooding would pose a risk to 135 homes, valued at $121 million: 65 in Los Osos; 36 in Pismo; 11 in Morro Bay; 9 in Cayucos; and 6 in Cambria.

The most extreme example — a 10-foot rise and major flooding — would put 1,178 homes valued at $392 million at risk. The majority of those homes — 572 — are in Pismo Beach, followed by 220 in Oceano; 185 in Los Osos; 62 in Avila Beach; and 57 in Morro Bay.

Some comparisons:

  • In Santa Barbara County, 2,799 homes, valued at $1.7 billion, would be at risk under the worst-case scenario.

  • In Los Angeles County, 26,966 homes, valued at $10.8 billion.
  • In San Francisco, 15,205 homes, valued at $20.1 billion.

When — or if — it happens depends in large part on whether we’re successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Keep in mind, it’s not just buildings that are in jeopardy.

Public facilities like railroads, highways, sewer plants and power plants are at risk as well.

The loss of sandy beach is another big concern.

In Shell Beach, for example, high-end resorts located on clifftops may not be in danger, but the beaches below could disappear.

“Those are beautiful beaches, ripe for any type of storm surge. The least amount of sea level rise is going to cause havoc,” said Paul Chinowsky, the president of Resiliant Analytics and a Cal Poly graduate.

Resiliant Analytics teamed up with The Center for Climate Integrity to produce estimates on the cost of constructing seawalls to protect all threatened communities in the U.S.

The report, “High Tide Tax,” projects that California will need 1,785 miles of seawall estimated at nearly $22 billion.

More bad news: San Luis Obispo County will require 31 miles of that total, at a cost of $685 million.

Here’s a breakdown for some local communities:

  • Cambria: 3 miles, $103.7 million
  • Pismo Beach: 3 miles, $91.7 million
  • Morro Bay: 9 miles, $64.4 million
  • Cayucos: 2 miles, $56 million
  • Avila Beach: 1 mile, $22.4 million
  • San Simeon: 0.5 miles; $9 million

These are conservative estimates, according to the authors of the report. And, they only include what it would cost to protect public roads, schools and similar facilities — not houses or private businesses.

Also, this is largely an academic pursuit, at least for coastal California, since there’s little likelihood the California Coastal Commission would allow the entire coastline to be armored with seawalls.

But the report is serving as a wake-up call, according to Chinowsky, especially on the West Coast.

The reaction here, he said, has often been, “Wow! This is something that’s going to affect us?”

The West Coast, he added, “... is a little slow on really grasping and publicly discussing the problem.”

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