By Caitlin Looby

Photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt

Coastal flooding has increased dramatically in recent decades. Unlike increased drought, which tends to be easier to imagine, it is difficult to understand how future sea level rise will affect our coastlines. Everyone has their favorite place to launch their paddleboard or kayak. But what will these places look like in the future?

The King Tide that happened on January 22, 2016, provided an excellent example of how the coastline may appear in 30 to 50 years. In order to visualize this future flood and impending risk, C&K/SUP Photo Editor Aaron Black-Schmidt went on an expedition with the Orange County Coastkeeper and LightHawk.

Beach-side houses between coastal wetlands and Pacific Ocean. You can see the berm of sand built by local authorities to block incoming waves during the king tide.

Beach-side houses between coastal wetlands and Pacific Ocean. You can see the berm of sand built by local authorities to block incoming waves during the king tide.

Coastal erosion along the Pacific Coast Highway north of Huntington Beach.

Coastal erosion along the Pacific Coast Highway north of Huntington Beach.

Both of these organizations are leaders in conservation. The Orange County Coastkeeper is a non-profit organization that aims to preserve and restore water for public works and recreation. LightHawk uses flight missions to mobilize conservation efforts through aerial photography.

The goal of this collaborative mission: to use the King Tide as a tool to raise public awareness on rising sea levels.

Photos from this expedition show how shockingly close the King Tide was to existing structures. Houses were a few feet from the ocean. “It’s crazy to see how close the waves were to houses along the coastline. You could see the ocean literally eating away the cliffs and sandbanks,” said Black-Schmidt.

PCH between Huntington and Seal Beach. You can see earth moving equipment pushing sand to block incoming waves.

PCH between Huntington and Seal Beach. You can see earth moving equipment pushing sand to block incoming waves.

Bolsa Chica Basin wetlands behind the Pacific Coast Highway south of Seal Beach.

Bolsa Chica Basin wetlands behind the Pacific Coast Highway south of Seal Beach.

Many Californians dream of living by the beach, with the ocean just a short walk away. It is unfortunate to think that a changing climate will likely make this extreme event a normality within our lifetimes. Which begs the question: if this is what a normal day will be, what will particularly high tides look like?

Not much room left on the spit of land holding houses on the Alamitos Peninsula.

Not much room left on the spit of land holding houses on the Alamitos Peninsula.

The King Tide also reveals that restored wetlands are in danger. The influx of water caused them to flood and look more like lakes than wetlands. Sea level rise will cause these wetlands, which conservationists have worked hard to restore, to effectively become extensions of the sea.

Bolsa Chica wetlands at flood stage due to the king tide behind Seal Beach.

Bolsa Chica wetlands at flood stage due to the King Tide behind Seal Beach.

Although these coastal wetlands may not always accessible to paddlers, they provide important services that paddlers might not be aware of. Wetlands can temporarily store water during rain events, so that other places—like residential areas—do not flood. Wetlands are also nature’s filter system. They improve water quality by filtering sediments and pollutants. So, if you are paddling on clear water elsewhere, you may have a wetland to thank.

This expedition also demonstrated that the proposed Huntington Beach Desalination Facility, a facility designed to produce potable water from the ocean, may be built in an area that is at an extreme risk for flooding. Although increasing fresh water supplies is a priority in Southern California, the Orange County Coastkeeper believes that this plan will have grave effects on the environment and is not a cost-effective option. The King Tide also showed that the location is not ideal. “I think it’s great to see our government wanting to create more fresh water resources through new methods like desalination,” said Black-Schmidt. “But they have to think long term for their infrastructure. From what I saw, the Huntington Beach location is a ludicrous place to build this plant—it needs to go to higher ground.”

Site of proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

Site of proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

Scientific literature is currently inundated with studies showing that sea levels will rise substantially in the coming century. And within the past ten years, 75 percent of coastal floods have been linked to climate change. The Orange County Coastkeeper wants paddlers to realize that water quality and climate change are interconnected.

It is important to note that California is not the only area experiencing coastal flooding. This expedition is a case study of a problem that is happening everywhere. Between 2005 and 2014, the residents and water enthusiasts of Wilmington, North Carolina, experienced the equivalent of over a year’s worth of coastal flood days.

Shoring up of sand berms on the end of Alamitos Peninsula.

Shoring up of sand berms on the end of Alamitos Peninsula.

Broken jetty outside Long Beach swamped by the king tide.

Broken jetty outside Long Beach swamped by the king tide.

One of the best and easiest things you can do is to know the story and tell the story. Know what changes are occurring in your favorite paddling spots and to start conversations with your fellow paddlers. If you are paddling in the Newport Back Bay, there may be two to four extra feet of water. If you are further north in the Kern River, you may be carrying your paddleboard or kayak through areas that have dried up. You can also visit Orange County Coastkeeper’s website—or similar organizations in your area—for volunteer opportunities.

The drought and sea level rise do something really important—they make people pay attention to water. So the next time you go out to your favorite launch spot close your eyes. What will this place look like in the future? Will you be standing on dried up land or will you be underwater? Learn how your favorite spots may be changing, and bring it up the next time you are out for a paddle.

— For more on the missions of the Orange County Coastkeeper and Lighthawk see their websites:

http://www.coastkeeper.org/

http://www.lighthawk.org/

http://www.climatecentral.org/news/study-reveals-acceleration-of-sea-level-rise-20055

http://scwrp.org/general-wetlands-information/