‘What If We Just Got Out of Nature’s Way?’

AP Photo/Elliot Spagat

For many, climate change is still a future problem to address, but it’s already affecting certain beachside communities. When water flooded Imperial Beach, California, in March 2014, it made a symbolic meeting with the city’s surfer statue — as if to tell residents, “What is now dry will soon be shoreline.”

For High Country News, Ruxandra Guidi details how this small beach community is directly confronting climate change by talking the impossible: managed retreat. As other coastal towns consider raising the land, building seawalls and levees, or using sand replenishment, Imperial Beach asks instead: “What if we just got out of nature’s way?”

Dedina does not see a future in sand. His city, he believes, will have to do what was once unthinkable: It will have to retreat. Managed retreat represents a planned move away from the coast, allowing the beach to erode for the forces of nature to take over. This, of course, is a gargantuan task. How does a city take all the homes and businesses along its coast and relocate them inland? It has never been done in the Western U.S. before, certainly not on the scale that would be needed — even for a city as small as Imperial Beach.

“This is all new to us,” Dedina said, as we chatted one day in his office. He showed me what a retreat looked like on a map: a ribbon of color, one to three city blocks deep, that covered Imperial Beach’s entire coast. “Cities are inherently very conservative places, but we decided that it would be unwise to be conservative in this situation,” he said. “Our only future lies in being innovative and taking risks, because the risk of not taking a risk is very great.”

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