Planning, permitting, and risk: Effects of sea level rise on the California coast

Mallory Morgan
Mallory Morgan, Katie Thompson
Posted on: 2/12/2017 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

The California Coastal Commission Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance serves as interpretive guidelines for addressing sea level rise primarily in local coastal program (LCP) certifications and updates, as well as in coastal development permit (CDP) decisions (California Coastal Commission 2015). It provides the most up-to-date scientific information on sea level rise in California, including guidance on using scenario-based analyses in response to sea level rise projection ranges, and information about physical effects including storms, extreme events, and abrupt change. It is not regulatory or upheld as legal standard, but provides the best available science and recommended methodology for addressing sea level rise on the California coast. It is intended to be dynamic, updated periodically to include new science, information, and approaches as well as new legal precedent over time. It was written to be used by many audiences, including a high level of detail on many subjects and chapters written as stand-alone documents as well. The organization of this document is intended as a “menu of options,” as it applies to a broad range of ecosystems along the California coast and not one specific geographic area. Readers are advised to only refer to the sections most applicable and relevant to their conditions and place.

The document includes information on environmental, economic, and social impacts of sea level rise as well as the importance of addressing sea level rise. Consequences of sea level rise for California’s communities, coastal resources, and development including environmental justice issues are explored. The document identifies four principles for addressing sea level rise in the coastal zone, including:

  1. Use best available science to guide decisions and determine relevant and sea level rise projections for all stages of planning, project design, and permitting; acknowledge and address scientific uncertainty through scenario planning and adaptive management; and apply a precautionary approach to address the extremes of sea level rise projections.
  2. Minimize coastal hazards through planning and development standards by avoiding significant risks to new development and existing authorized structures; considering the social and economic needs of the people of California while balancing coastal-dependent and coastal-related development priorities; and ensuring property owners understand and assume risks and mitigate impacts of new development in identified hazardous areas.
  3. Maximize protection of public access, recreation, and sensitive coastal resources by maximizing natural shoreline values and processes and reducing shoreline armoring; protecting public trust lands and resources in inland/upland areas; and mitigating cumulative impacts on the coast.
  4. Maximize agency coordination and public participation by coordinating decision-making, research, and monitoring; conducting vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning; and engaging with all stakeholders.

Specific adaptation strategies are provided for various impacts and issues, including coastal development and hazards, public access and recreation, coastal habitats and wetlands, agricultural resources, water quality and supply, archeological and paleontological resources, and scenic and visual resources. In addition, the legal context of adaptation planning in California is provided, covering topics such as seawalls and other shoreline protective devices, the public trust boundary, and potential private property taking issues. Finally, next steps are included to discuss other direct ways the Commission and partner organizations can address the challenges of sea level rise and climate change.


Morgan, M. & K. Thompson. 2017. Planning, permitting, and risk: Effects of sea level rise on the California coast. Summary of a project of the California Coastal Commission. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated February 2017)

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