Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposed budget would cut funding for coastal resilience projects almost in half, eliminating more than half a billion dollars of state funds this year that would help protect the coast against rising seas and climate change.
The cuts are part of Newsom's proposed $6 billion in reductions to California's climate change programs in response to a projected $22.5 billion statewide deficit.
California's coastal resilience programs provide funding for local governments to prepare coastal plans and pay for projects that protect beaches, homes and infrastructure at risk from rising seas. Greenhouse gases are responsible for warming the planet, which melts ice and causes sea levels to rise.
Newsom's proposal would budget $734 million for coastal resilience, a cut of 43% or $561 million compared to 2021 and 2022, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Some lawmakers told CalMatters that they are concerned about Newsom's proposal to gut the programs that are helping coastal towns prepare for flooding that has already damaged many communities.
Sen. Josh Becker, who chairs the Senate's budget subcommittee, called the cuts "highly concerning," especially because they are excessive compared to the cuts applied to other state programs.
"Most programs received 10% cuts," Becker, a Democrat from San Mateo, said in an interview. "I'm very concerned about it, given the timing that we are experiencing these floods. My county is among the most endangered in the state for sea level rise."
Becker said he hopes to restore some of the money, possibly by finding federal funds to backfill some programs.
"These are dramatic cuts to something we agreed upon, and I'm going to try to get it back," he said.
Newsom's budget, released on Jan. 10, is not final, with revisions due in May.
Experts say there's a lot at stake if sea level rise and coastal projects are not addressed now. Last month the state Department of Transportation, Caltrans, released a draft management plan estimating that it needs nearly $15 billion over the next ten years to protect bridges and roads from sea level rise.
A 2020 report by the Legislative Analyst's Office projects more than $20 billion worth of California property will be at risk or underwater by 2050 without planning and funding. "Waiting too long to initiate adaptation efforts likely will make responding effectively more difficult and costly…. The next decade represents a crucial time period for taking action to prepare for" sea level rise, the report says.
Much of the funding on the chopping block is in the form of grants to local governments to fund projects and planning. Included is $64 million for cities to prepare extensive management plans to prepare for sea level rise.
Chris Helmer, director of environmental and natural resources for the city of Imperial Beach, said "if the state cuts adaptation projects, that would be a concern."
Imperial Beach received about $200,000 to prepare a draft sea level rise plan, he said. It also has a grant pending with the Ocean Protection Council for another project to protect the city from encroaching seas.
"If there's no money, that's a major concern for us," Helmer said. January's storm exacerbated already massive flooding issues, he said. Waves broke on city streets, sand was driven well past the beach and rocks were thrown through residents' windows. The cleanup took two months.
Up the coast in Ventura, recent storms also undermined beachfront infrastructure and proved the value of a project at Surfers' Point, partially funded by a $1.6 million state grant, that relocated a parking lot and bike path away from the water and protected the beach with a "living shoreline."
The second phase of that project is contingent on a $16.2 million grant application with the state. The timeline to begin is this winter.
Cody Stults, the city's associate engineer, said he is optimistic that the grant would survive the cuts, but added that there is no way the city could afford to pay for the next phase of the Surfers' Point project.
"If we can't get the money, I can almost guarantee that the work will not be going through this winter," he said.
Among the statewide programs with deep proposed cuts are protecting the coast from climate change, with a 65% cut; adapting infrastructure to sea level rise, a 74% cut; and implementing SB 1, a 63% cut.
SB 1 provides funding for much of the state's sea level rise response. The author, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, said the threat is more urgent now than when the 2021 law passed.
"The intent of SB 1 was to empower communities to work to find solutions at the local level to address sea level rise in partnership with the state," the San Diego Democrat said in a statement to CalMatters. "While we are facing challenging times, the past decade of responsible budgeting has prepared the state to withstand a downturn without devastating cuts to critical programs."
In testimony before the legislature last week, Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot characterized the governor's proposed cuts as "surgical." When pressed to explain how the administration prioritized programs that would be trimmed, he said the focus was on addressing "clear and present danger." He identified wildfire and water projects as posing a direct and immediate threat to Californians.
Environmentalists said the governor's proposal to cut climate funding is shortsighted: Rising seas are often described as a "slow moving disaster," as the most devastating impacts are projected to show up in coming decades.
"Sea level rise is here," said Laura Walsh, California policy manager for Surfrider Foundation. While wildfires are a "huge deal and we don't want to compare sob stories, at this particular moment, living on the coast feels like an emergency. This is not belt-tightening, this is drowning," she said.
Newsom proposed the cuts right when California was lashed with a damaging series of atmospheric rivers, flooding and high surf, which was proof enough that sea level rise is already harming the state, said Donne Brownsey, chair of the California Coastal Commission.
Brownsey didn't criticize the governor's proposed cuts. But she said she hoped they would be re-evaluated.
"What we saw in January was the trailer for the movie. That's the way it's going to roll," she said. "We're hopeful that given what happened — all the flooding and damage up and down the coastline — we are hoping there will be a reevaluation of these programs. It's not a future problem. It's today."
Brownsey and others noted that past budgets have been generous, but also that their programs are increasingly under pressure.
"We still have unprecedented amounts of funding to make these investments. The state is committed," said Jenn Eckerle, deputy secretary for oceans and coastal policy and executive director of the state's Ocean Protection Council. "But we also know impacts are happening now and we know they are only going to get more extreme over time. We also recognize that failure to invest in planning now can lead to significant costs later."
Crowfoot told the Senate budget panel that state agencies have been scouring federal programs for money to backfill state funding losses. About $4 billion in new federal money is set aside for coastal resilience projects.
The Newsom administration floated the idea of a general obligation bond to make up for the cuts, and a "trigger" provision that would restore funding if the revenue picture brightens.
But Rachel Ehlers of the Legislative Analyst's Office told the Senate subcommittee that expecting revenues to rebound is "optimistic." She said there is a strong chance that the deficit will grow.