Knee-Deep in Doubt

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Affluent Balboa Island has become Orange County’s front line in the debate about climate change and rising seas. Here, where science meets the seawall, it’s time to decide: to believe, or not to believe?

On a typically breezy, sun-drenched morning on Balboa Island, Jim Dastur takes his daily stroll around the perimeter of this 128-acre speck of land in Newport Bay he and about 2,500 others call home. We’ve been making our way around the pedestrian lane that encircles the island, past the faux Statue of Liberty that one whimsical resident has installed on a boat slip, past the vibrant colors of the flowerbeds and the serene expressions of the bronzed, sinewy middle-aged exercisers power-walking in the latest Lululemon attire. Dastur, an Indian-born marine construction engineer who has lived on the island for nearly two decades, points out the increasingly precarious state of the seawall that protects this little Xanadu from storm surges.

“This is just the façade,” says Dastur, former interim CEO of a company that worked on the New Orleans levees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He explains that the visible part of the seawall masks the important stuff: a concrete sheet that stretches 8 feet to the floor of the harbor to keep the water from saturating the island. But it’s nowhere near impermeable.

Dastur calls attention to puddles that have seeped through the porous and crumbling seawall and into the yard of a resident. “See, right here,” he says. “You can see it.”

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A little moisture here and there might seem like a trifling imperfection. But as Dastur points out on the tidal gauge mounted in the harbor, this is a calm, clear day. “We’re at a 5 [feet], maximum 6 right now,” he says, referring to the water’s depth. But when the weather gets rough, the water sometimes spills over the seawall, which ranges between roughly 7½ and 9½ feet high. Right now, the problem is more annoying than catastrophic; if the weather gets bad, there’s potential for a couple of inches of water to flood the oldest, lowest houses.

But it only stands to get worse if sea levels rise and storms become more severe due to climate change, as predicted. In a study published in 2001, UC Irvine engineers and consulting firms in Huntington Beach and Long Beach concluded that the island’s numerous low spots make it “vulnerable to extensive flooding.” (Even Balboa’s highest points are less than 8 feet above sea level.) By 2025, though, a storm could put half a foot of water in half of Balboa Island’s homes, and by 2050, a worst-case flood would put the island under 2 feet of water, affecting three-quarters of the buildings. By 2100, such a deluge could reach 5 feet.

Dastur runs his fingers along the wall’s surface, and frowns. The barrier is 75 years old, and looks as weathered as some septuagenarian beachcomber sifting for lost coins. (The city’s assessment in 2011: “Holding together well with widespread cracking and some concrete spalling [breaking into chips and fragments], and evidence of corroding rebar.”)

Of course, for Balboa Island residents, the dilemma is how to keep the possibility of climate change from being too inconvenient—or expensive. Newport Beach officials want to protect the island with a new, scalable seawall that could be extended to 14 feet if conditions continue to worsen, but the cost to taxpayers—the top-end estimate is $80 million—is a shock to some islanders. And there are disturbing hints that even more extreme remedies—such as jacking up the island’s houses and raising its streets—eventually may be considered. Residents themselves might have to bear the costs of those fixes, which also might radically change the island’s look and eradicate the quaint seaside ambiance they love.

Like it or not, this affluent, insular little neighborhood is Orange County’s canary in the coal mine. It’s among the first local communities to directly confront the possible consequences and daunting costs of climate change. But in doing so, Dastur and his fellow islanders also may show the rest of us how to get past the contentiousness between climate-change denialists on one side and finger-pointing environmentalists on the other—and how to deal with a future that may be filled with difficult choices.

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They’re not used to such intrusions in this idyllic, quirky elfin enclave full of cramped waterfront cottages with a 2011 median sale price of about $2.3 million, boat slips filled with gleaming white cabin cruisers, high-end European and Japanese sedans sharing the narrow streets with custom electric golf carts, shop windows filled with high-priced New Age tchotchkes, and T-shirts that proclaim one’s love of martinis and sailing. It’s the sort of place where the average household income of $191,172 is more than twice the California norm, and to which people have long gravitated for respite from the world’s unpleasantness.

Balboa Island attracts not just the wealthy, but free-spirited artists and eccentric celebrities such as the late dancer Ruby Keeler. They’re drawn here by the allure of waking up to barking sea lions, coffee at Dad’s Donut Shop & Bakery, and the ambiance of living in a neighborly small town.

But as island residents now are learning, to their dismay, they can’t avoid a slow-motion catastrophe that scientists say threatens varying degrees of havoc across the entire planet. Global warming, which a majority of scientists believe is driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities, is causing sea levels to rise and storms to become more intense. It could be far worse. In distant places such as Sri Lanka, catastrophic flooding and landslides are turning tens of thousands into climate refugees, and agricultural experts, haunted by the specter of famine, are searching for strains of rice that can better withstand severe weather.

On Balboa Island, by comparison, the potential consequences are far less dire, so much so that outsiders might consider them trifling: gradually rising sea levels, and future storm surges that could overwhelm the island’s increasingly deteriorating seawall, flooding the streets, sidewalks, and first floors of older homes with a few inches of water, and momentarily turning this little slice of paradise into an unseemly quagmire.

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In a traditionally conservative political redoubt such as Balboa Island—where sculptor Miriam Baker, one of the island’s most notable artists, displays a bust of President Reagan in her studio window—embracing a theory advanced by supposedly left-leaning climatologists is a particularly difficult idea.

Some on Balboa Island still refuse to believe the rising seas could inflict punishment on their paradise. “The projections—I don’t trust any of them,” Seymour Beek, a resident whose family founded the ferry that connects the island to Balboa Peninsula, told the Los Angeles Times in 2011.

Resident Donna DiBari acknowledges that the sea levels are rising due to climate change, but says it’s no big deal compared to the hurricanes that battered her former home in Florida. She wonders why the city can’t just dredge up the wet, gummy sand from under the docks and pile it against the seawall to seal it. “But the environmentalists say that we can’t disturb the eel grass,” she says.

In fairness, the island always has had its share of environmentalists, too. The late Josephine Spates, who from the 1920s through the ’60s was a major activist in the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club, used to invite other members to her Balboa Island house for an annual nature hike on nearby beaches.

Resident Randy Seton, a restaurateur and professional yacht captain who moved to the island half a century ago, helped start the environmental watchdog group Orange County Coastkeeper in the 1990s. But even Seton says he has trouble believing humans are causing the climate change that could threaten to swamp his neighborhood. “Part of me thinks it’s a bunch of voodoo science,” he says. “But another part of me worries that we may need that wall to be 10 feet high.” He says that most of his neighbors are similarly perplexed. “It’s like cancer,” he explains. “You can say, ‘It’ll never happen to me.’ But then all of a sudden you’ve got it. So who knows? But if it’s not going to happen, we don’t want to put up a big wall. How are you going to see the bay?”

City Councilman Ed Selich, who represents the island, has in the past suggested that scientists are needlessly alarmist about climate change. These days, he tries to walk a path between climate denialism and the reality that the seas are rising: “I don’t know if global warming is caused by man, or whether it’s broader cyclical changes in climate over time. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Selich speaks with the guarded tone of a politician who undoubtedly knows that environmentalists would view his Hummer as part of the problem, even though in fairness, he actually does most of his workday commuting on a fuel-efficient motorcycle. He deftly shifts gears. “We do know that the sea levels are rising. Our staff does the measurements. That’s an indisputable fact. We know it’s rising. We have to figure a plan to deal with it.”

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If the ocean simply were trying to reclaim Balboa Island as part of some inexorable rhythm of nature, there’d be a peculiar irony to it. But unlike the Italian city of Venice, which has long struggled to keep from sinking beneath the sea, Balboa Island is mostly artificial. In 1908, real estate developer William S. Collins, the man responsible for transforming a humble shipping wharf into opulent Newport Beach, got the inspiration to dredge a channel on the north side of the bay and pile the wet sand atop a mudflat to make Balboa Island. He cut it up into 30-by-85-foot lots that he advertised for $350 and up, but quietly sold for as little as $25, mostly to Angelenos who came down on the Red Car trolley. The new owners erected bare-bones weekend cottages—some of which, despite flimsy construction, still are used by their descendants. (Longtime resident Randy Seton tells a story, probably apocryphal, that Collins was trying to save money and didn’t build the island high enough: “The rumor is that he went around and offered to make it higher, if lot buyers would pay him another $15.”)

To keep the bay from washing away their investment, residents built a wooden seawall in 1909. A few years later, they replaced it with a sturdier barrier of cement, and then rebuilt again several times over the next few decades. After a monster 1936 storm topped the seawall, broke it in a few places, and inundated Balboa Island’s streets, the protection was beefed up even more. That seawall, finished in 1938 with help from the New Deal’s National Recovery Act, has been protecting the island ever since.

But in recent years, residents have watched with dismay as the aging seawall has become unable to prevent water from getting into their streets and yards. Not only are surges topping the barrier, but the wall itself is leaking. “It’s happening more frequently,” says John Corrough, a former city harbor commissioner who lives on the island’s south bay front.

The seawall isn’t the only thing that’s taxed by increasingly harsh weather. When the water rises, workers in yellow storm gear have to rush out to manually close dozens of valves that prevent the ocean water from backing up into the storm drains and emptying onto land.

Not everybody, of course, faces the same risks from the increasingly unfriendly sea. As Dastur explains, Balboa Islanders are nowhere near as homogeneously well-to-do as the census data and real estate prices suggest. He divides the population roughly into three segments: older pensioners of modest means; those who inherited the vacation cottages their parents acquired back in the day and who now are real estate rich but cash poor; and wealthier newcomers, the CEO types and professional investors who like to buy multiple old cottages, tear them down, and erect chic, postmodern architectural showcases that loom over the cramped streets like Arnold Schwarzenegger squeezed into the back seat of a Mini Cooper.

But the new houses are built on higher slabs—as much as 5 feet taller—than the old cottages, according to a city study. So it’s not the new money that’s going to get wet, but rather, the longtime residents who’ve given the island its carefree, quirky ambience.

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All the same, some Balboa Islanders seem nonplussed by media coverage of their dilemma. Headlines such as a recent one from the Daily Pilot—“Guarding From the Rising Sea Could Cost Millions”—probably sound like the hype for a particularly clichéd Hollywood disaster flick. “I hope you’re not looking for the perfect storm here,” warns Corrough, the former city harbor commissioner. “The island is not sinking out of sight.” He adds that the most rational debaters advocate continued monitoring and an incremental approach.

The dilemma, though, is that nobody really is sure quite how high the sea level and the storm surges are going to be.

The best that Newport Beach Deputy Public Works Director Dave Webb can do is point to a range of estimates by agencies and researchers, from just a few inches’ increase over a century to nearly the height of an average adult American male. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that sea levels will rise by as much as 1½ feet by 2050, and by as much as 4½ feet by the end of the century. (The charted increase starts out slowly for the next four decades, and then escalates dramatically.) When you consider that some climatologists say the early 2000s data on which these estimates were based now appear to be too conservative, it becomes dicey for Newport Beach officials when they try to decide just how high a wall they need.

That’s why city officials are approaching the planning cautiously. They propose replacing the seawall with a stronger one that’s just a foot higher by 2025, but designing it to be scalable, so future administrations would have the option of adding as much as 4 feet by 2060. Those upgrades, plus refitting the ferry landing and bridges, is what pushes the price tag to between $60 million and $80 million.

And rising seas create a drainage problem. Already, during a bad storm, the valves that keep storm drains from backing up have to be closed for three hours. If the water is at 9 or 10 feet, those valves may have to remain closed twice as long. “You could have a situation in which when it rains, the streets wouldn’t have anywhere to drain,” Selich says. The island could turn into a big rain barrel.

In Venice, which has been sinking because humans drained the aquifer beneath the islands on which the city was built, engineers have been pumping water back in, inflating the ground like a hot-water bottle. That tactic has slowed the sinking, but it wouldn’t work for Balboa Island, where the problem may turn out to be too much water under the island, not too little. Instead, Selich explains, they’d have to jack up the houses and build concrete bases under them, and then elevate the streets and the utility lines in a similar fashion.

There’s some historic precedent for this: After a 1900 hurricane devastated low-lying Galveston, Texas, residents jacked up their houses, churches, and other major buildings, and engineers dug a canal to pump in a sand-saltwater slurry that solidified beneath them to raise the city. It was effective enough that the city has withstood subsequent hurricanes with little or no loss of life from flooding.

It might work, but it also might inalterably change Balboa Island. The staggering cost of raising all the streets and sidewalks—and putting new utility lines beneath them—would have to be borne by the residents, probably through an assessment. Most likely the newer houses are put together well enough to be raised, but the older cottages might not survive. It’s not quite as dire a situation as one facing the Maldives—an Indian Ocean archipelago whose president recently lamented that the citizenry eventually may have to relocate to Australia—but still, the costs here might be so high that they would drive out the older, less affluent legacy residents.

“Balboa Island is still a charming place, but somewhere there’s a tipping point,” says Ben Peters, a retired teacher who grew up on the island in the days when it was still a weekend resort. “It’s not going to be the same place.”

Another resident who asked that her name not be used says she moved to the island 36 years ago, but recently decided to sell her home and move to higher ground. “I tried to stay on the island for as long as I could. I know there’s something coming, but it’s hard to leave.”

In her words, you can hear the doubt that’s driving the whole debate.

 

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine. 

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