Monterey Bay

Kayaks await paddlers at Elkhorn Slough. Photo Credit: ©Mark Godfrey

Kayaks await paddlers at Elkhorn Slough. Photo Credit: ©Mark Godfrey

Monterey Bay’s iconic coastline and coastal habitats are threatened by the “coastal squeeze” between climate change induced sea level rise and human development. To protect Monterey Bay’s world-famous natural resources, communities must make difficult choices about how to manage coastal land uses including: critical coastal infrastructure like power plants; hotels that bring tourism and revenue to our community; other commercial enterprises; agricultural fields that provide our families with delicious, locally grown fruits and vegetables; roadways that we rely on to get to and from work, home, the beach; & even our residences – the homes we love because of their proximity to Monterey Bay.

Natural Infrastructure and the Pacific Coast Highway

The Nature Conservancy is working with a suite of partners in the Monterey Bay area to find multi-benefit adaptation solutions. Through our Pacific Coast Highway Natural Infrastructure Pilot Project at Elkhorn Slough, we are exploring a suite of adaptation approaches for the highway that maximize the use and persistence of natural infrastructure in the face of climate change.

Seawalls are bad for business

Seawalls along Monterey Bay shore. Photo Credit: Mary Gleason

Seawalls along Monterey Bay coast. Photo Credit: Mary Gleason/The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy recently released a report [LINK], funded in part by the State Coastal Conservancy, finding that shoreline armoring methods like seawalls and revetments are a bad business decision for cities and towns making coastal plans for construction around sea level rise. The results indicate that in almost all cases, the least economically beneficial adaptation approach, especially over the long-term, involves shoreline armoring; in many instances, the cost of building an armoring structure far outweighs any benefits it may provide.

While we knew that shoreline armoring is an environmentally problematic decision for California’s beaches, our study indicates that, surprisingly, it is a bad financial investment as well,” says Kelly Leo, Coastal Project Director at The Nature Conservancy in California. “The results of this study change the way we think about the real costs of our coastal adaptation approaches and call into question our traditional shoreline protection responses. In light of this study, shoreline armoring no longer makes ecological or economic sense for many of California’s coastal communities.”

The findings are part of the new report, entitled Economic Impact of Climate Adaptation Strategies for Southern Monterey Bay. The study compares coastal climate change adaptation approaches for southern Monterey Bay, a stretch of the California coast with possibly the highest coastal erosion rate in the state. The aim of this analysis was to provide decision makers in the region with the tools they need to select the most ecologically sensitive, economically efficient, and physically sound adaptation strategies for their communities from a suite of possible solutions to combat accelerating coastal erosion in the area.

When coastal communities are planning for action around rising sea levels, it is critical for us to be able to understand the full cost of our adaptation options,” says Kimberly Cole, Chief of Planning, Engineering and Environmental Compliance for the City of Monterey, CA. “This report comes at a critical time in our coastal adaptation planning process for the City of Monterey, which is currently working to develop a certified Local Coastal Program. The analysis provides invaluable information that will inform the planning process for the City and neighboring communities in southern Monterey Bay.”

The analysis was conducted by a diverse, cross-cutting team led by scientists and project directors at The Nature Conservancy, with support from the California State Coastal Conservancy and in partnership with a team of coastal engineers and geomorphologists at Environmental Science Associates, as well as a team of California-based economists with expertise in coastal and environmental economics.

An app is currently being developed for The Nature Conservancy’s interactive online decision support tool to visualize the outputs of this analysis. It will be available in early 2017 and will be designed to allow local managers and planners to interact with the economic risk and vulnerability data.


Coastal Habitat Fragmentation in Southern Monterey Bay, Photo Credit: Kelly Leo

Coastal Habitat Fragmentation in Southern Monterey Bay, Photo Credit: Kelly Leo/The Nature Conservancy

Southern Monterey Bay’s coastal habitats face numerous anthropogenic threats, the most significant of which are: erosion and sediment budget disruption; trampling; and conflicting land use in the form of shoreline development for agriculture, industry (sand mining), residential development, commercial use (hotels and businesses), military use (Fort Ord), and even transportation (roads and highways that bisect coastal habitat connectivity).

Habitats & Species

Beyond its scenic coastlines, Monterey Bay is probably better known for its abundant and iconic wildlife. The productive and well protected Bay is home to a number of large marine mammals such as sea lions, sea otters, and seals; whales and dolphins are frequently seen passing through the bay and water-birds are abundant year round.

Coastal Habitat Restoration in Marina, Photo credit: Kelly Leo

Coastal Habitat Restoration in Marina, Photo credit: Kelly Leo/The Nature Conservancy

On shore, the Marina sand dunes are breathtaking examples of old dunes covered in coastal scrub and native dune vegetation. As dunes are reliant on disturbance for their natural progression, they are also more receptive to the influence and proliferation of invasive species (Gordon 1995)*. Coastal land managers and environmental groups throughout the region have been working to replant native vegetation and restore the high quality dune habitats.

Monterey’s beaches and dunes provide habitat for a variety of birds and animals, of which the Western Snowy Plover often receives the most attention due to its status as a Federally Threatened species (Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Site Characterization). The plovers rely on undisturbed beach habitat to scratch out nests to lay their eggs.

*Gordon, B. 1995. Monterey Bay Area: Natural History and Cultural Imprints. Boxwood Press.

There are a number of coastal climate change adaptation planning efforts underway in the Monterey Bay area, and the adaptation community in the region comes together annually, at the Adapt Monterey Bay Sea Level Rise Summit, to coordinate its efforts, share achievements, and solicit input and direction from local coastal managers.

As mentioned above, The Nature Conservancy is working to share information about the favorable economics of non-armoring coastal adaptation solutions. We are also working to create a blueprint for nature-based adaptation for Monterey Bay to help local managers understand where and how they can best deploy natural infrastructure to protect the Monterey Bay coastline.

As part of the development of Integrated Regional Water Management (IWRM) Plans for Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, the Natural Capital Project and the Center for Ocean Solutions used the InVEST coastal vulnerability model to show where coastal habitats might be critical in protecting key assets from sea level rise and storms. This process helped to inform aspects of the IWRM plans for the two regions with respect to conservation, restoration and sustainable water management.

Funded by the Ocean Protection Council, Monterey County is partnering with a number of agencies and organizations on another regional project aimed at bringing disparate adaptation efforts together in a coordinated way, as evidenced by its name: Collaborative Efforts to Assess Sea Level Rise Impacts and Evaluate Policy Options for the Monterey Bay Coast. Working with Monterey County are: Conservation and Research (the contract administrator); Central Coast Wetlands Group at Moss Landing Marine Labs (providing project management and coastal resource assessment); Santa Cruz County and City of Capitola (responsible for policy guidance and project support); ESA/PWA and Revell Coastal (conducting the coastal impact modeling); Center for Ocean Solutions (providing a website for resources and policy guidance and support); Natural Capital Project (providing ecosystem service analyses and information); and The Nature Conservancy (providing adaptation planning and policy support and coordination on stakeholder engagement through the Adapt Monterey Bay effort).

This collaborative project provides initial steps to applying Coastal Commission Guidance on assessing vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies to help inform municipalities and aid Local Coastal Program updates. The project will: identify what critical coastal infrastructure will be compromised due to SLR for time horizons 2030, 2060, and 2100; 2) identify how fluvial processes will increase flooding risk to coastal communities in the face of rising seas; and 3) define appropriate response strategies for these risks and discuss with regional partners the programmatic and policy options that can be adopted to address these risks to the region.

To view the sea level rise and coastal hazard inundation modeling for Monterey Bay, visit the Coastal Resilience WebTool.

Moss Landing Harbor, Photo credit: Kelly Leo

Moss Landing Harbor, Photo credit: Kelly Leo/The Nature Conservancy


For the latest reports, publications and other resources on coastal resilience around Monterey Bay visit the Coastal Resilience Resource Library on the Conservation Gateway.