Climate change will bring some bad news to our county, and a lot of this news is beginning to sound all too familiar. We will see rising seas, with a storm surge associated with the El Niño oceanic weather pattern that has already shown the potential to cost billions of dollars in damage, as was seen in the county in l997-l998 and 2005, when 10 people were killed by a cliff collapsing on the town of La Conchita. 

Not to mention soaring temperatures, expected to rise by a statewide average of at least three degrees Fahrenheit by 2060, and much more inland. State hydrologists fear the heat — and the potential for intensifying drought, as projected this year — will challenge the State Water Project, which relies on the Sierra Nevada mountains to store most of the state’s water as snow for most of the year, and is the world’s largest, most complex and most expensive water storage and delivery system. 

Climate change also encourages invasive species, which, by nature, take advantage of the shifts in ecological zones. Climate change will mean increased costs to protect or relocate infrastructure, such as power plants and water treatment plants found near the beach. It means reducing fossil fuel emissions statewide to comply with the state’s innovative Global Warming Solutions act, AB 32, which mandates that one-third of the energy production be provided by renewable energy sources by 2020. 

But this past year brought some good news, too, when it comes to the county and climate change. The Nature Conservancy — encouraged by elected officials and agency representatives — a year and a half ago picked Ventura County as a sort of “test lab” for potential solutions for climate change on the West Coast. While spending millions to buy land along the Santa Clara River to protect wildlife and also to provide a flood plain for the “flashier” river that is expected this century, the conservancy is developing a mapping tool to allow decision-makers to better assess the dangers of sea level rise in decades to come, and to encourage a regional conversation about climate change. 

And, as if to add new spice to an already elaborate dish, scientists in recent years have identified some odd quirks of climate change likely to influence our lives in Ventura County this century. An array of temperature projections indicate the cooling “June gloom” effect along the coast will persist, for one, in the summers, which fits with other published research that suggests the fogginess could intensify. And although we will see more temperature extremes, they will not all be on the high end. We will continue to have cold Januaries, such as we experienced this year, and even an uptick in the faint summer rains in August.

It’s going to be a century of change. Is Ventura County ready?


Sea level rise

Currently, the sea level around the world, driven by the expansion of warming waters and the melting of ice on land, is rising at modest rate, approximately three millimeters a year. As recently as 2003, studies looking specifically at sea level rise along the California coast estimated that sea level rise (SLR) in the 21st century would total no more than 20 centimeters, or about eight inches. But those studies largely excluded the possibility of the melting of the polar ice sheets, because at that time even the experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) could only estimate the amount of melting of ice resting on land masses (such as Greenland) in polar regions.

In late 2002, based on new findings from satellites that measure relative gravity, NASA was able to measure the loss of mass from the polar ice sheets. The results surprised almost everyone. A study published last fall in Science magazine, for example, by an international team of researchers, found that the ice sheets were losing three times as much mass annually as they were in the l990s.

“Both ice sheets appear to be losing more ice now than 20 years ago, but the pace of ice loss from Greenland is extraordinary, with nearly a five-fold increase since the 1990s,” Erik Ivins of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena said.

Meanwhile, a study from California’s Climate Change Center estimated the sea level will rise 20 inches along our coasts by 2050, and 55 inches, over about a yard and a half, by 2100. Although eye-opening, these results do not include what will happen during storms, as was seen last year, which combined torrential downpours with incoming seas.

California does not need fear hurricanes, but it does every few years face El Niño, an oceanic shift that drives unimaginably vast amounts of water across the Pacific and up against the coasts of North and South America, raising the sea level by as much as a foot. It is similar to the storm surge that comes ashore with a hurricane, according to Susi Moser, a climate researcher at Stanford.

“Twelve inches [of sea level rise] is well within the kind of projection we can expect from a good storm surge during an El Niño,” she said. “It’s not exactly comparable to Superstorm Sandy because, for the most part, California’s coast is fairly steep. But where it is flat, such as low-lying areas around Ventura Harbor and the Oxnard shores, we have to expect major flooding. It’s not the end of the world for California, but if you think about the landfill areas in San Francisco Bay, for example, and take out the entire inner ring of the bay and lose the airport, that’s a pain in the ass.”

Also in the cross hairs this century are Ventura County’s two big power plants, Ormond Beach and Mandalay Beach, although sea level rise is not the immediate issue. A 2010 ruling by the State Water Board requires ocean-cooled power plants to replace the “once through” cooling system, which passes seawater through the plants and back into the ocean, or to retire the plants by 2020. The plants’ new operator, NRG Energy, has yet to declare what the company plans to do with their assets.

“The question is: Are they going to retrofit? Or try to get out from under the water board’s ruling?” said Carmen Ramirez, an attorney and member of the Oxnard City Council.

In February, local State Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, proposed a bill to study the feasibility of decommissioning the natural gas plants, which date back to the l970s. He said the idea was driven by the potential cost of retrofits, and the desire to restore the beaches, not sea level rise.

“We have to think about what is in the best interests of Oxnard, of Ventura County, and of California,” Ramirez said. “Ventura would not allow a power plant on their beach. Malibu would not allow a power plant on their beach. Because they’re there, does that mean we’re stuck with them? Do we want to continue that? Because we have a general plan that says we want these plants decommissioned.”


Planning for sea level rise

Ramirez sounds as if she wants to believe in what the general plan says, but isn’t sure she can. Brian Brennan, who serves on the Ventura City Council, and works for Supervisor Steve Bennett, puts it more bluntly.

“For a county that has so much coastline, sea level rise is the dirty little secret nobody really wants to talk about,” he said. “You don’t hear about it from policy makers at the city level in this county for the most part. Sea level rise is happening and we need to take a stand, and we need it to be in the documents — the General Plan and the Local Coastal Plan — that regulate what happens along our coasts.”



According to Climate Central, there is more than a one in six chance that the sea level rise, storm surge and tide will overtop one foot by 2020. This graphic shows the areas below 1 ft.


Brennan points out that communities in New Jersey and New York that stood behind beaches with sand dunes survived the onslaught of Superstorm Sandy far better than those that did not.

“These beaches were supported by federal [funding] carve-outs for beach nourishment,” he said. “It wasn’t for protection from storms. It was for the community to enjoy on summer vacation. But those communities that elected not to match the federal funding suffered far more damage, about $50 million per community, versus $3-4 million [for the beaches].”

Brennan points out that beaches and sand dunes in the county will be naturally replenished by stones and grit from the Ventura and Santa Clara Rivers, if their sediments are allowed to flow freely to the coast. This would not only help protect developed property, but would reduce or eliminate the coast of rebuilding beaches after storms. Efforts to decommission Matilija Dam, which has held back such sediments for decades, has gone nowhere slowly despite federal support in recent years, but Brennan — and local allies such as Surfrider and the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy — continue to beat the drum for a free-flowing Ventura River.

The Ventura City Councilman knows how long solutions can take. He helped lead the effort for a “managed retreat” at Surfers Point in Ventura, in which $4.5 million was spent backing away from ocean storms attacking the parking lot and bike path area instead of building an underground sea wall offshore as originally was suggested by the nearby county fairgrounds. Though Ventura was lauded for being the first city in the state to take this approach, Brennan all but shrugs as he talks about it.

“That project took me 16 years, and the ocean was already taking the bike path,” he said. “I don’t want to be begrudging, but I’m concerned about the state beaches being eroded away in storms, as well as low-lying areas like the [Pierpont and Ventura] Keys.”

The Nature Conservancy’s sea level mapping tool, which will be rolled out formally this fall, originally covered just the Santa Clara River and Ormond Beach areas; the Conservancy has invested millions of dollars to protect these areas. In December, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors agreed to add $30,000 toward the effort, to be matched by the Conservancy and the California Coastal Conservancy. This will allow the new tool to cover the length of the coastline, from Rincon down to the county line, according to Lily Verdone, who is co-coordinating the steering committee.

“With longer periods of drought and shorter periods of intense rain we will see with climate change, local planners need to have very specific scenarios to look at,” Vendome said. “We think the mapping tool will be very useful to decision-makers. The county has been hugely supportive of the coastal resilience effort since the get-go.”


Climate change and agriculture
in Ventura County

In 2009, Steven Chu, a University of California, Berkeley, physicist chosen by President Barack Obama to lead the Department of Energy told the Los Angeles Times that in a worst-case scenario he feared the 21st century could mean “no more agriculture in California,” and he added, as if in an afterthought, “I don’t actually see how they keep their cities going either.”

Chu was looking at projections for California’s snowpack this century. Many researchers have found that the snowpack, which feeds the rivers and reservoirs that the State Water Project depends on to supply a semi-arid Southern California with water, will fade away as temperatures rise and more precipitation comes as rain, not snow. The credibility of such studies is enhanced by the numbers from this year, which recorded very little snow in January, February or March, leaving the snowpack at 54 percent of normal.

That’s before the state faces a significant rise in temperatures. As temperatures rise, droughts — which historically can last for five to 10 years in California — have the potential to drain reservoirs, which have about a three-year supply. Louise Jackson, lead author of a report on agriculture for the state, said she still believes in the adaptability of water purveyors and farmers, but in coastal regions such as Ventura County, is concerned by urbanization. Land converted to suburban housing puts out nearly 60 times the greenhouse gas emissions of farmland, she said. Given that, she’s troubled that nearly half the farmers surveyed for her study said they did not believe in climate change.

David Schwabauer, who grows lemons and avocados in the Moorpark area, has no difficulty believing in climate change, which he sees in the extremes he’s been facing this year in the orchards. He’s concerned by the extremes he’s seen recently — of heat in the fall, cold in the winter, and dryness. In the fall, he said that he had his staff working seven days a week to keep the trees in water, and this winter he has had them working nights to keep the trees from freezing, even though the fall, although hot, broke no records for dryness, and the winter cold spells weren’t especially harsh.

“Historically we always figured that the 15th of March was the cut-off date for freezes,” he said. “But this year, we went past that by a week or more.”

David Pierce, a climate scientist at University of California, San Diego, who has done extensively modeling work projecting temperatures and precipitation for California, agreed. His computer modeling work shows a sharp overall rise in state warming, but a continuation of cold January temperatures.

“Our results for winter were a little surprising,” he said. “We didn’t see a big change. We still project winters to be as cold as ever.”

Pierce’s models find much bigger changes in the summer and fall, and he notes an odd quirk. Monsoonal rains — which often brush Ventura County with fat, warm drops of rain in August — will be sharply increased, as interior heating pulls more moisture northward from the Baja waters.


Meeting climate change
with societal change

California today is powered mostly by natural gas, a relatively clean fuel compared to fuel oil or coal, and a recent white paper in part attributed this development to the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which encourages environmental review and community input, and is also up for renewal before the legislature. Rick Cole, former city manager of Ventura, thinks the law has helped force environmental review, but also thinks it has become a club for business and labor interests to attack development in the urban core, which perversely encourages sprawl.

“There are people who would like nothing better than to gut this law and do whatever they want and there are people who think it’s a perfect law and can’t possibly be changed,” he said. “Both positions are extreme. I support the changes proposed by Gov. Brown.”

Governments in Ventura County have made real efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The County won an award last year in a partnership program with Southern California Edison, for saving 6 million kilowatt hours, and reducing energy expenditures by $900,000, while the city of Ventura, although unsuccessful in finding funding for a plan to power city hall with solar panels, still reduced electricity used by 15 percent and vehicle fuel use by 20 percent in the last four years, saving $2.1 million, according to Mayor Mike Tracy.


This graph shows an average of 3.2 mm increase per year of the mean sea level.


Rachel Morris, who leads the city’s climate change advocacy group VC Cool, appreciates such efforts but regrets that Ventura County voters have left millions of dollars on the table by twice rejecting a small sales tax for public transportation, unlike neighboring counties Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. This means the county cannot match funds for federal and state grants, which greatly reduces chances for funding of public transportation. For her it means carpooling, biking, and trying to build a movement to support efforts to reduce emissions, which she said is actually more enjoyable than trying to do it alone. 

“It’s OK if you’re a little inconvenienced by this,” she said. “It’s OK if it takes a little more time to prepare locally grown food than frozen or packaged food. It’s OK to call to find other people to carpool with.  Somehow we’ve been given this message that if it’s convenient and fast and cheap, then we’re the smart guys, and if it’s not, then we’re idiots. But that’s not going to wash for future generations, and that includes my kids and my grandkids.”

Morris helped organize a showing of the stirring documentary Chasing Ice at the Ventura Film Society. The film — which shows the shockingly rapid retreat of glaciers and ice sheets worldwide — sold out, and Rick Ridgeway, a mountaineer and spokesperson for Patagonia, made an appearance. He was asked if it’s not too late to do something about climate change.

Ridgeway quoted nature writer David Quammen on that issue.

“If we just adopt the attitude that it’s all too late and fall into despair,” Ridgeway said, “we will discover that despair is not only useless, but it’s also not very much fun.”