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 thousand residents just south of San Diego, that threat isn’t a distant one. That’s because 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,” says 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,” he says, sipping from his morning coffee on the steps of his back porch, as he waited out the flood, which would subside hours later.

The flooding near Gould’s home was caused by this January’s King Tide, an extreme high tide that’s natural; King Tides happen once or twice a year because of a specific alignment of the sun, the earth and moon. But because of rising sea levels, they’re now getting noticeably worse, causing residents to confront a problem that will soon be widespread.

“The elevation of Imperial Beach is just that low relative to sea level, and so they’re at the front line,” says Mark Merrifield at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla. Researchers at Scripps are studying the King tide in Imperial beach because they say it may provide a model for other cities along the coast. Imperial Beach “provides a laboratory to study this effect.”

This year, the city’s budget totalled million dollars, which pales in comparison with the whopping 0 million dollars 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,” says Dante Pamintuan, a resident of Imperial Beach who worries that the city could one day seize private property against residents’ wishes. There are better ways to deal with the problem, which he says 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 says.

January 25th , a few days after our interview with Dante, 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 with which state officials are still coming to terms. “It’s a work in progress and I think it’s proven to be more difficult than we maybe originally assessed,” says Gabe Buhr, Coastal City program manager at the California Coastal Commission.

“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.” No matter what, someone will always end up disappointed, Bur says. “You’re dealing with a massive ocean of sea level rise, and the solutions aren’t going to be just really easy solutions.”

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More info on Extreme Tidal Surges Could Wreck This California Coastal Town (HBO)

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