A report released Thursday by the Center for Climate Integrity shows that of all West Coast states, Washington is poised to bear the highest financial burden as it tries to shelter communities from a rising sea driven by climate change.
The report found that at a minimum, the U.S. faces more than $400 billion in costs over the next 20 years to defend coastal communities from sea level rise. The work will require more than 50,000 miles of coastal barriers in 22 states, representing at least 10 percent of all climate change adaptation costs to municipalities. However, this is a lowball estimate, according to the report, and would provide protection only for projected sea levels and annual storms.
Local planners will likely account for larger storms that have a .01 percent chance of striking any given year, known as 100-year storm events. This means that already costly price estimate will likely be far higher than $400 billion across the country. But on the West Coast, Washington is the most vulnerable, said Richard Wiles, director of the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) in an email. The report said it would cost around $24 billion to protect the state’s shorelines.
“On the West Coast, Washington state stands out as the most costly state, more expensive than California, made vulnerable due to it’s extensive tidal shoreline in Puget Sound and related waters,” Wiles said. “In this respect Washington looks more like an East Coast state, with thousands of miles of tidal shoreline and a very large number of smaller communities and settlements in these tidal areas that need to be protected.”
The study additionally only looked at costs associated with protecting public infrastructure like roads, using these as a proxy to estimate private developments in coastal areas across the country. Fully protecting structures such as homes, churches and grocery stores could boost the price even higher. Researchers said the report was not meant to be a comprehensive cost estimate, but a ruler by which costs could be measured — a baseline estimate of sea level rise as the country moves into uncharted climate-affected waters.
Overall, Washington was ranked as the seventh most costly state in the U.S. Similar to East Coast states like Virginia or South Carolina, Washington has several small towns near the coast. Entire towns are at risk of being lost without protection.
In Washington state, the Quinault Nation village of Taholah is being relocated out of the path of a rising Pacific Ocean. The roughly 660 people living in the village are being relocated above projected sea level and flooding zones. Other places in the U.S. will need even more protection, including the state of Georgia, which will need its entire coastline protected by 2040, the report said. Washington state will need around 1,651 miles of protected coastline, either by sea walls or other means, according to the report.
Locally, King County is expected to spend at least $1.26 billion with other, smaller and less economically prosperous counties in the state paying even more.
No one-size-fits-all solution
David Michalsen, a coastal engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said they are planning for sea level increase between 1 foot and 5 feet by 2100. However, sea level rise is not uniform across the state. Some places like Neah Bay are expected to be less at-risk than other areas of the state due to a process called glacial rebound, where land that used to be covered by glaciers in the last ice age continues to expand.
This won’t help other areas of the state like Southwest Washington or Central and South Puget Sound, which will be relatively more at-risk for sea level rise. However while Puget Sound could see the Pacific swell by 5 feet, lower risk areas like Neah Bay could rise up to 4 feet by 2100, according to the report.
This is changing the way the Corps of Engineers is planning for projects. For example, when designing a jetty they may start the project with a larger initial footprint, giving the project room to expand to meet future conditions. Higher seas mean larger waves, so rocks that are used on such projects would be scaled up, and engineers could even use natural features to help protect coastal infrastructure. Adaptability will likely be key for projects in the future, Michalsen said.
“There’s maybe some more direction toward getting away from hard static features and creating more adaptable types of structures that aren’t locked in one type of place, so softer engineering solutions like dunes and beaches, you can adapt those designs a little easier than you can a rock structure that’s locked into one space,” he said.
This is the approach the Washington state Department of Ecology is looking at, said communications manager Curt Hart.
Ecology works with local jurisdictions to develop local shoreline master plans in line with the Shoreline Management Act approved by state voters in 1972. Given Washington’s diverse coastlines, there is no single solution.
“The solutions are likely going to be tailored and nuanced,” he said.
While sea walls are an option, Hart said the department encourages soft armoring and solutions that preserve the natural coastal habit, which is often used by juvenile fish and other wildlife.
“The idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that’s going to protect our shorelines, make sure that we don’t lose those environmental or ecological functions, a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work,” he said.
Other options aside from sea walls include having vegetative buffers and development setbacks from coastal areas, or using logs and rocks on the beach to anchor shorelines as opposed to bulkheads.
On top of Taholah, Hart said there are several other Native American towns and villages on the Olympic Peninsula that are vulnerable not only to sea level rise, but flooding and a earthquake-triggered tsunamis.
“Sea level rise puts our coastal communities at risk,” Hart said. “It’s how do we address that risk and how do we adapt and get ready, because we know that sea level rise is happening, we know that projections show that it’s going to rise.”
However, the Department of Ecology had not gotten a chance to fully review the CCI report or its data, and could not speak to its accuracy or relevance for his department, Hart said.
Beyond laying out broad cost estimates, the report also questions who will foot the bill for climate adaptation. The report argues that fossil fuel companies that manufacture any products that have been driving global emissions should be on the hook. KC Golden of Climate Solutions echoed this idea.
“The fossil fuel industry knowingly caused the impacts and prevented and blocked the way to prevent action,” he said.
Golden said fossil fuel companies should be held accountable similar to tobacco companies, which were hit with more than $206 billion in settlement fines that went toward funding public education and other health investments. Without something like this, Golden said taxpayers will be liable for all climate damage costs.
“We should have a more equitable distribution of these costs that we’re incurring now,” he said.
And climate-related expenses are already racking up as Washington state spends millions to manage bigger and more destructive wildfires in its forests and grasslands. The state Department of Natural Resources asked for $55 million from the Legislature to maintain forests and fight wildfires, of which $50 million was granted. Relocation costs for Taholah were around $65 million in 2014.
On top of this, if emissions aren’t reduced from present levels, climate change could be costing the U.S. more than $572 billion each year in effects ranging from heat-related deaths to lost wages to infrastructure damage by the end of this century.
But as far as sea level rise goes, Hart said there hasn’t been any statewide analysis of potential costs. The Department of Ecology is focused on providing technical and scientific resources for the state and local communities, but Hart said such an analysis would likely be beneficial to their work and other agencies as they decide how to move forward.
“As far as economic impacts of sea level rise in Washington, we haven’t done anything like that and I would say every time we can get more information, it’s always useful,” he said. “We’re a scientific agency and we make our decisions based on science and technology, and information like that is always useful, and I think communities would also like to have that type of information too.”