Photo provided by Kiki Patsch

Beach loss through sea level rise will affect underserved communities the most

A new study shows that equitable coastal access might become another victim of climate change – unless we plan proactively
Ute Eberle

As the rising sea level slowly erodes California’s beaches, underserved communities are most affected by the loss, according to preliminary results in a new study funded by California Sea Grant and the California State University Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology (COAST).

“Sea level rise in California is bad news for beaches, worse news for coastal access and terrible news for meaningful coastal access and environmental justice,” said Kiki Patsch, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Resource Management at California State University Channel Islands. 

Patsch is leading the study with a multidisciplinary team of researchers. Their goal is to provide data on beach resilience, access and use to help resource managers consider equity and environmental justice in their sea level rise planning.

Two-thirds of California beaches might disappear

By 2100, up to 67% of California's iconic beaches are projected to disappear. This loss will be felt most immediately by the more than half of the population in the state that lives along the coast. But the impact will look different for each community.

California’s Constitution and Coastal Act mandate that everyone should have access to the coast. However, access can only be meaningfully achieved if the different needs of the various groups of coastal users are being met, according to Patsch. 

“For example, if you can’t swim and there’s no lifeguard or if you drove a long way to spend the day at the beach and there’s no restroom, those are meaningful access issues,” Patsch said. 

Rough waves crash into cement stairs lined with white railings that lead into the ocean.
Photo provided by Kiki Patsch.

Previous research by Patsch shows that Californians living on the coast tend to be whiter, older, wealthier and much less diverse than in the rest of the state. Compared to the statewide average, the population share of Latinos and Hispanics drops to about half in the one-kilometer radius around a coastal access point. Black people and Native Americans are even more underrepresented.

Since those residents have to travel much farther to enjoy the beach, amenities such as parking, fresh water and picnic tables are vital. They also need public transit and low-cost overnight accommodations nearby.

In this new study, the researchers reviewed every coastal access site in California to see how different sea level rise scenarios might affect their amenities and infrastructure, including trails, stairways, restrooms, picnic areas and parking lots. 

The results were grim.

For example, with one meter of sea level rise, San Diego County is expected to lose more than one-quarter of the picnic areas, as well as half of its lifeguard towers and nearly 15% of restrooms at coastal access sites. If the sea level rises by two meters, it will destroy nearly half of the beach parking in the county. 

And the scenarios for many other parts of the California coast look similar.

“These losses are significant, especially for underserved communities who rely on these amenities,” Patsch said. 

The team also surveyed around 1,600 beach visitors at 53 beaches to better understand their spending, preferences, demographics and other information. 

The common complaints about parking and crowding were expected, but other results surprised Patsch.

“It blew our minds a bit how far people will go to get to their preferred beach,” Patsch said. 

Some people would drive two hours – and pass several beaches along the way – to reach a spot that is near certain places to eat or has lifeguards, while others would drive really far to go to a very secluded beach, Patsch said.

In the coming months, the team wants to add surveys of people who are not going to the beach. 

“Why aren't they going? Is it because there’s no free parking or no public transportation? Is it because they don't feel welcome? We want to figure out what the barriers to access are,” Patsch said. 

A black and white logo shows sun rays above the words "The People's Beach" with a solid, flat line and then solid wavy line underneath. The next line reads "science to secure access for all to California's coast" and "".
Provided by Kiki Patsch.

The $497,596 project was selected along with two others on sea-level rise through COAST’s State Science Information Needs Program. COAST provided $800,000 and California Sea Grant provided an additional $300,000 for a total of $1.1M in research funding. The findings will also have economic ramifications since beaches and coastal access are significant drivers of jobs and local taxes for coastal communities in California.

Without proactive planning, inequities will be exacerbated

The team plans to integrate the information into an existing beach sustainability database that can be accessed by the California Coastal Commission and other state agencies before making management decisions. 

“When we are finished, we will be able to show, for each community in our study, exactly which coastal access sites are likely to be lost under different sea level rise scenarios and we will be able to show what impacts there will be to underserved communities,” Patsch said.

They hope this study will help identify management strategies that work best in each location to promote sustainable beaches and equitable meaningful access to them. 

“Obviously, we can't save everything in the same way. So how do we choose?” Patsch said. “If we don’t manage with intent and simply play catch-up in an emergency piecemeal way, it will exacerbate inequities.”

About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.