STINSON BEACH, Calif. -- The Pacific Ocean laps against a seaside property in the small Northern California town. If it comes a foot closer, it will breach the black-painted concrete wall that surrounds the wooden house on three sides.
The threatening water isn't the work of rising sea levels, but rather of "king tides," which occur when the sun and moon's combined influence is highest. They're not caused by climate change, but according to activists and experts, they provide a convenient way to see what everyday tides might look like decades from now.
It's an image experts want people to contemplate. State agencies and environmental groups are taking reporters out on boats, holding nighttime events and combing the coast in an effort to get people to think about what it will mean for sea levels to rise as much as 3 feet by the end of the century, as U.N. scientists have projected.
"It's an issue that most legislators and policymakers are tracking, but are largely unwilling to take bold action to address," said Sara Aminzadeh, program manager with California Coastkeeper Alliance.
The state's Ocean Protection Council issued a document in 2010 finding that the state could see 40 to 55 inches of sea-level rise by 2100, but it doesn't require agencies to take steps to address it.
The OPC resolution "stops short of advising state agencies to restrict new development in hazard zones -- a critical step to protect public safety and our economy," Aminzadeh said.
The effort to get people thinking about sea-level rise, now in its second year, is funded by the state's Coastal Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a local agency that oversees coastal development.
The agencies hope to increase people's awareness of the risk that building on the coastline may eventually entail. Several of the beachfront houses on Stinson Beach have makeshift sea walls in front of them; one has large gaps underneath it and ends in a raw edge right at the house's perimeter.
That's not the best adaptation strategy, according to environmental groups like California Coastkeeper Alliance.
"Given everything we know about how sea walls impact public access to the coast, coastal habitats and shoreline property values, it is ecologically and economically irresponsible to further armor our coast," Aminzadeh said.
An issue that always seems distant
The group evaluated its messaging last year and found that policymakers viewed sea-level rise as a more distant environmental issue. It's now focusing more on sea-level rise's effect on people, rather than wildlife, and trying to illustrate the phenomenon visually through local examples of beaches, homes and roads vulnerable to flooding.
Lesley Ewing, a senior coastal engineer with the Coastal Commission, said the state's 1976 Coastal Act provides enough authority to regulate coastal development as climate change progresses. "Staff has always been of the opinion that the Coastal Act has already incorporated sea-level rise," she said. "There may in the future be opportunities to strengthen our policies for sea-level rise, but we do have the opportunity to look at risks to property based not just on current conditions, but also conditions that may happen in the future."
Outdated plans don't help
It's hard to know exactly how many cities are addressing sea-level rise or even climate change in their coastal plans. The Coastal Commission doesn't keep statistics. "We don't have that piece of information," said coastal program manager Liz Fuchs. The agency did issue guidance in 2007 suggesting that jurisdictions take "sea level rise, from both a short- and long-term perspective," into account, but there is no requirement that they do so.