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Turning tides: A glimpse into our future with rising sea levels

Words by Caitlin Looby, photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt

For most people seeing is believing. In Southern California, we can see that we are in a drought. Lakes and rivers are drying up and rain is never in the forecast. It's not that hard to convince people. With these current visual cues, we can see that if it gets worse, some outdoor activities Californians love may become exceedingly difficult.

But, what about the opposite problem? The problem of too much water. Sea levels are rising, and the number of coastal flood days has increased dramatically. Unlike the drought, it is difficult to understand what future sea level rise will look like for our coastline. Everyone has their favorite place to launch their paddleboard or kayak. But, what will these places look like in the future?

The King Tide that happened on January 22, 2016 provided an excellent example of what the coastline will look like in 30 to 50 years. In order to visualize this future flood and impending risk, C&K/SUP Photo Editor Aaron Black-Schmidt went on an expedition with the Orange County Coastkeeper and LightHawk.

Both of these organizations are leaders in conservation. The Orange County Coastkeeper is a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve and restore water for public works and recreation. LightHawk uses flight missions to mobilize conservation efforts through aerial photography.

The goal of this collaborative mission: to use the King Tide as a tool to raise public awareness on rising sea levels.

Photos from this expedition show how shockingly close the King Tide was to existing structures. Houses were a few feet from the ocean. "It's crazy to see how close the waves were to houses along the coastline. You could see the ocean literally eating away the cliffs and sandbanks," said Black-Schmidt.

Many Californians dream of living by the beach, with the ocean just a short walk away. It is unfortunate to think that within most of our lifetimes this extreme event will just be a normal day. And think, if this is what a normal day will be, what will high tide look like?

The King Tide also reveals that restored wetlands are in danger. The influx of water caused them to flood, and look more like lakes than wetlands. Sea level rise will cause these wetlands, which conservationists have worked hard to restore, to effectively become extensions of the sea.

Although these coastal wetlands may not always accessible to paddlers, they provide important services that paddlers might not be aware of. Wetlands can temporarily store water during rain events, so that other places—like residential areas—do not flood. Wetlands are also nature's filter system. They improve water quality by filtering sediments and pollutants. So, if you are paddling on clear water elsewhere, you may have a wetland to thank.

This expedition also demonstrated that the Huntington Beach Desalination Facility may be built in an area that is at an extreme risk for flooding. This facility would be able to produce potable water from the ocean. Although water supplies are a priority, the Orange County Coastkeeper believes this plan will have grave effects on the environment, and is not a cost-effective option. Needless to say the King Tide shows that the location is not ideal. "I think it's great to see our government wanting to create more fresh water resources through new methods like desalination. But, they have to think long-term for their infrastructure. From what I saw, the Huntington Beach location is a ludicrous place to build this plant—it needs to go to higher ground."

Scientific literature is currently inundated with studies showing that sea levels will rise substantially. And within the past ten years, 75 percent of these coastal floods are a result of climate change.

The Orange County Coastkeeper wants paddlers to realize that water quality and climate change are intermingled.

California is not the only area experiencing coastal flooding. This expedition is a case study of a problem that is happening everywhere. Between 2005 and 2014, the residents and water enthusiasts of Wilmington, North Carolina experienced the equivalent of over a year's worth of coastal flood days.

One of the best and easiest things you can do is to know the story, and tell the story. Know what changes are occurring in your favorite paddling spots, and start conversations with your fellow paddlers. Maybe you’re paddling in the Newport Back Bay, where the water level might be noticeably higher. Maybe you’re further north on the Kern River, carrying your paddleboard or kayak through areas that’ve dried up. Talk about it, folks.

You can also visit Orange County Coastkeeper's website—or similar organizations in your area—for volunteer opportunities.

Among their many affects, drought and sea level rise serve an important purpose—it has made people pay attention to water. So, the next time you go out to your favorite launch spot close your eyes. What will this place look like in the future? Will you be standing on dried up land or will you be underwater? Learn how your favorite spots may be changing, and bring it up the next time you are out for a paddle.

For more on the missions of the Orange County Coastkeeper and Lighthawk see their websites.

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