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New Study Shows Growing Threat Of Rising Sea Levels In Santa Cruz

SANTA CRUZ (KPIX 5) -- With the fear of rising sea levels threatening coastal properties, on Tuesday the city of Santa Cruz revealed a plan to take on raging storms, floods and erosion in what could be a losing battle with Mother Nature.

While there is a definite allure to a life lived on the water's edge, even on a bright, cloudless day, one can sense the gathering storm that threatens communities up and down California's coast.

"The low-lying areas are subject to flooding. The coastal cliffs are all eroding," said UC Santa Cruz Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Gary Griggs, who specializes in environmental studies.

The city of Santa Cruz commissioned a study looking at the long-term effects of rising sea levels, coastal erosion and storm events.

The study predicts a relatively modest increase in the next decade, with an only four inches rise by 2030.

But it's the decades that follow that give cause for concern. 28 inches are predicted by 2060 and 63 inches -- more than five feet-- by the turn of the next century.

"Every foot that sea levels rise, the next storm, the next El Nino, the next high tide is on top of that," explained Griggs.

The report says it's not clear if the current protection for coastal areas like West Cliff Drive will be able to withstand the threat of rising of sea levels.

The use of seawalls and big boulders to protect the coast is called armoring. While the language suggests a battle of man versus Mother Nature, in reality, it is more of a war of attrition, with the ocean chipping away at the defenses or carving out entire sections of the coast during storms."

So what happens to the 63 buildings that are at risk right now, or the 275 projected to be vulnerable in 2060?

The report raises an unpleasant possibility. It notes that given the engineering complexity and cost of protecting all vulnerable properties, the city may be forced to consider a strategy of "managed retreat." In the simplest possible terms, that means the ocean wins and people will have to move.

"Maybe, we can't protect all of them. But we can protect some of them," said former Santa Cruz Deputy City Manager Scott Collins. "If we lose ground, yeah, we're going to have to plan for maybe one lane on West Cliff."

It's not just West Cliff Drive. A map shows neighborhoods east of the Boardwalk at risk like Seabright and Twin Lakes.

However, it's unlikely area residents will give up without a fight.

"I think people who live here -- who realize the beauty of this place -- will do everything in their power to rebuild, to remain in their homes if possible," said homeowner Rhett Barker.

While it is hard to predict how much time any of the threatened properties have, the new report shows the growing strength of the gathering storm.

Sea level rise and coastal erosion effects communities throughout the bay area, including San Francisco.

KPIX flew Sky Drone 5 along the Embarcadero and Bay Bridge where city leaders partnered with environmentalists to use virtual reality to demonstrate the potential impacts of rising sea levels on the city's waterfront.

The Look Ahead app gives people an immersive view of the potential impacts to three low lying areas: the Embarcadero, Mission Creek and Heron's Head.

The goal is promote conservation and encourage people to take whatever steps they can to reduce their impact on the environment.

"We're already seeing sea level rise now. We're already seeing flooding in this area when we get king tides combined with a storm event. And in the future, it's predicted that it could flood regularly here." Said Cara Pike, the Executive Director of Climate Access.

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