California Legislature Considers Requiring Local Trustees of Public Trust Land to Prepare Sea Level Rise Action Plans

With rising sea levels as a logical outcome of global climate change, the California Legislature is considering Assembly Bill 2598, which would require each local trustee of public trust land to prepare a sea level rise action plan. This plan would evaluate the potential impacts of a rising ocean on both public trust land and improvements on that land, and it would outline potential strategies to deal with those impacts.

Under the public trust doctrine, California holds title to tidelands, submerged lands, and beds of navigable waterways for public purposes. These purposes include commerce, navigation, fisheries, and preserving land in its natural state. The state has granted title to certain public trust lands to more than 80 local trustees, including cities, counties, public districts, and agencies such as the Department of Water Resources.

Many of these public trust lands are on or near California’s coastline, and thus directly affected by rising sea levels resulting from global climate change. The potential impact on the state from rising sea levels is considerable. Approximately 80% of California’s population lives within 50 kilometers of the Pacific Ocean, and the coastal economy contributes more than $50 billion annually to the state. Even when limited to activities at California’s ports, this sector of the economy produces roughly $7 billion annually in state and local revenues and employs over five hundred thousand Californians.

AB 2598 was introduced by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Woodland Hills), and it is currently pending in the State Senate. The core of the bill is a requirement that each local trustee “shall give management priority to, and take all reasonable actions that are necessary for, the preparation of a sea level action plan” for public trust lands over which it has been granted title. This plan must be submitted by July 1, 2011, to the Natural Resources Agency, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, and the State Lands Commission. Among other required content, each plan must map areas that may be affected by sea level rise in 2050 and 2100; estimate the financial effect of sea level rise on public trust lands and improvements on those lands; explain strategies to prevent or mitigate damage to existing development, infrastructure, and critical habitat; and design standards to avoid impacts on new development and infrastructure.

Under the bill, a local trustee may be exempt from preparing a plan, or may submit a modified plan, if none of its public trust lands is subject to sea level rise by 2100, or if the cost of preparing the plan “substantially outweighs” the beneficial information the plan would provide. A local trustee may also be exempt from preparing a plan if revenues from its public trust lands and assets from sources such as the Ocean Protection Council are insufficient to fund the plan’s production.