As Lauren Williams reported recently, large swaths of Orange County’s coast are at risk for chronic flooding in the near future. A new interactive tool by the Union of Concerned Scientists maps vulnerability at the hyper local level. It contains bad news for low-lying Huntington Beach, which is projected to flood 26 times per year—or an average of every other week—by the year 2100.
This real and present flood risk has big implications for what we build in the coastal zone. Communities like Huntington Beach are already facing costs in the millions to defend or relocate existing infrastructure, so the idea of building a new billion dollar desalination plant in the flood zone—as Huntington Beach is currently contemplating—is almost incomprehensible.
An April study by the Ocean Protection Council underscored the need to prepare now for future flooding, especially flooding caused by storm surges, which many coastal communities are already experiencing. There is no question that the sea is rising, and it is the responsibility of civic leaders to understand the vulnerability and prepare in advance to protect homes, roads, businesses and vital services.
Over the past several years, Californians have seen firsthand how dramatically climate change can impact our communities. From the five-year drought to this winter’s powerful storms that swamped the streets of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, the weather we grew up with has given way to new extremes.
The changed climate demands a change in the way we plan our cities and systems. We have thousands of homes in the flood zone, along with roads, hospitals, power plants and airports. And now a company called Brookfield Poseidon Water wants to build a massive new desalination plant right in harm’s way.
Seawater desalination plants are located on the shoreline because they draw in massive amounts of seawater to process into potable water. Using desalted seawater is particularly problematic considering today’s climate. First is the location, which is susceptible to flooding now from seasonal high tides and storm surges that will only grow worse as climate change progresses.
Just as importantly, the process of desalting seawater uses a substantial amount of energy—twice as much energy as recycling water—contributing to emissions and undermining the state’s efforts to kick our fossil fuel habit. Orange County is fortunate to have a leading-edge water-recycling program that captures and cleans water to refill our aquifer. But we still have room to grow on water recycling, since the county discharges 100 million gallons per day into the ocean. As we think about adding new water sources to support ongoing population and economic growth, we should choose 21st century solutions like recycling and stormwater capture that are energy efficient and climate resilient.
California has taken bold steps to limit carbon emissions and slow the progression of climate change. Now it is time for us to lead on climate-smart urban planning and infrastructure choices that will keep our communities safe and protect taxpayer investments in an uncertain future.
Thanks to Surfrider Foundation for help preparing this post.