Rising sea levels are threat to ports, experts say


Joshua Stewart

Orange County Register

Due to rising sea levels, storms will make it more likely that the Port of Long Beach’s wharves will be damaged, critical roads submerged and utilities harmed, bringing activity at one of the state’s economic hubs to a disruptive lurch, experts say.

And to some extent, it’s inevitable, Rick Cameron, the director of environmental affairs and planning at the port, said Friday at the Aquarium of the Pacific during a joint hearing of the Assembly’s Select Committee On Sea Level Rise And The California Economy and the Select Committee On Ports.

“There will be sea level rise,” he said.

Predictions show that by 2100, the water will rise between 55 and 66 inches above its current level. That in itself isn’t too much of an issue, but when it’s combined with the longer, more severe and more regular storms and floods that are expected to accompany global climate change, it creates serious problems, experts from around the state said.

The rising sea level is largely due to global warming, and officials from around the state are trying to prepare for the consequences. Even if emissions were cut, sea levels would rise due to other factors, so it’s important to be aware of what’s coming, said Heather Cooley, water program co-director at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental group.

“As a result, climate response must be made on managing the unavoidable,” she said.

The Port of Long Beach has a three-year, three-step plan to address the threat, Cameron said. They’re completing an impact study that considers their assets, the breakwater, the port’s vulnerabilities and the risk that those weaknesses pose. Next, they’re developing a coastal resiliency plan before adopting that plan.

Other ports around the state are expecting similar problems and are doing their own assessments.

The Rand Corporation studied the Port of Los Angeles and found that there will be more flooding, more ship and wharf collisions, decreased clearance under bridges, dislodged containers and damaged buildings during storms. Based on the report, it’s most cost-effective to change their facilities to handle rising sea levels when they reach the normal end of their useful service life rather than retrofitting them while they are still useful, said Antonio Gioiello, the chief harbor engineer at the Port of Los Angeles.

Utilities across the state’s coastline will also be vulnerable, Cooley said. Her organization’s research shows that 30 coastal power plants will be at risk from sea level rise, including 13 in Southern California. Also, 28 wastewater treatment plants near the coast, including one in Orange County that handles 150 million gallons per day, and one in Santa Barbara that handles 7.1 million gallons per day, could have backflow and overflow problems, seawater intrusion and increased pumping costs.