Imperial Beach Bayshore Bike Path
BackSeptember 2021

Imperial Beach: Viewing Sea Level Rise as a Chance to Improve Lives

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina says sea-level-rise resilience planning is helping vulnerable residents in one of the state's poorest coastal cities.

In an odd twist, sea level rise actually provides an opportunity to better the lives of residents in some of the state’s most vulnerable coastal zones. Here in Imperial Beach, we are now actively collaborating with local, state and federal partners to adapt, restore and economically develop a once-forgotten portion of the San Diego bayfront. 

While much of the focus on sea level rise adaptation in California has been on the direct Pacific coastline, lesser attention has been placed on the hundreds of miles of bayfront shorelines throughout the state. These fragile coastlines, often located in large urban areas, frequently provide a hodgepodge of industrial, commercial, and recreational uses

Over the last few years, Imperial Beach has made significant progress on developing partnerships and supporting projects that enhance natural areas and recreational access to San Diego Bay. Yet the reality of future sea level rise continues to challenge the economic and environmental sustainability of the bayfront. The City is embracing the challenge of sea level rise as an opportunity to implement coastal adaptation projects on existing public parcels that will maintain public access, support future economic development in the City, and enhance existing habitat areas. 

Imperial Beach is one of the most economically challenged coastal cities in California. Some 28,000 residents live in the mostly working-class town, which abuts the U.S.-Mexico border to the south. On its northern boundary sit the wetlands of the 2,300-acre South San Diego Bay Unit of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service. These coastal wetlands are a haven for the birds of the Pacific Flyway, including over 20,000 elegant terns that annually nest adjacent to Imperial Beach. 

Historically, the two miles of bayfront in Imperial Beach housed salt evaporation ponds, industrial warehouses, the city’s public works operations and partially used RV parks. The restoration of coastal wetlands and improved public access from the Bayshore Bikeway is slowly starting to transform a once forgotten section of the City into a new community resource. 

The evolving Imperial Beach bayfront shoreline has undergone significant restoration and adaptation work. The bayfront is now promoted by the city and partners as a coastal zone suited for active recreation and access to nature that provides an opportunity to invest in middle-class housing and economic development in areas well above the 100-year sea level rise flood zone. 

With the advent of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge in 2000 and the construction of the Bayshore Bikeway that links over 20 miles of San Diego bayfront, access to the area for the community and visitors alike has significantly improved. 

Recent projects in Imperial Beach have enhanced the natural beauty of the area and created new recreational opportunities in this park-poor region. Bikeway Village is an example of a successful redevelopment project in which the City of Imperial Beach partnered with a private developer in 2017 to transform two dilapidated bayfront warehouses into a thriving commercial hub with a bike shop, coffee shop, outdoor exercise equipment, event space and a forthcoming brewery and restaurant. The project includes public access to a new bayfront park, enhanced recreational access to the Bayshore Bikeway, and a natural water quality treatment area adjacent to the wildlife refuge. Bikeway Village is now a thriving recreational and commercial outpost that is a catalyst for similar projects along the bayfront. 

Just north of Bikeway Village, the Port of San Diego is advancing another restoration project to restore over 80 acres of salt flat into a coastal salt marsh at a location called Pond 20. The City’s unique partnership with the Port of San Diego is allowing for the development of a mitigation bank at Pond 20, where the proceeds from selling restoration credits get invested directly back into the redevelopment of the adjacent communities. As the restoration of Pond 20 advances in the next few years the revenue will help support the redevelopment of the adjacent bayfront neighborhoods in Imperial Beach.    

Enhancing public access from Imperial Beach to the natural areas along south San Diego Bay is a shared priority with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has established a vision for the Bayside Birding and Walking Trail. Once complete, this project will provide a separated pedestrian path from the Bayshore Bikeway to three different elevated observation decks. The first observation deck was completed in 2016 in partnership with the City, which constructed a new public access and parking area at 10th Street. 

On the southwest corner of the Imperial Beach bayfront, the city partnered with a developer to transform a rundown RV park into 187 units of middle-class townhomes. The project was developed in accordance with the California Coastal Commission to accommodate the 100-year sea level rise zone. As part of the mitigation efforts, the project restored a degraded parcel that abuts the refuge and built a new bike spur to the Bayshore Bikeway to open up access. A local art group also painted a birding mural along the new bike spur that celebrates the abundant wildlife of the refuge. 

“The City of Imperial Beach has been able to combine planning for sea level rise and redeveloping once abandoned or industrialized parcels by moving them away from the shoreline. We’ve been able to provide ecological restoration, provide much needed housing, and improve public access to an area that had once been fenced off to the public,” says Imperial Beach City Manager Andy Hall.  

Through an Ocean Protection Council Prop 68 grant, the City of Imperial Beach is planning to retrofit a 1.2-mile segment of the Bayshore Bikeway providing sea level rise and ecosystem resilience. The project provides necessary flood protection to the adjacent disadvantaged communities and opportunities for enhanced coastal access to and along the shoreline. These coastal access improvements will also serve to activate the surrounding area, thereby increasing the demand for coastal-focused recreational and commercial uses. 

Sea level rise is already impacting local schools.

According to City of Imperial Beach Environmental Director Chris Helmer, “Our adaptation efforts along our bayfront are exactly the kind of integrated adaptation planning that helps us address future sea level rise as well as our need for economic development, housing and access to open space. That’s a big win-win for our community and the coastline.”

Climate related impacts like sea level rise are an opportunity for local communities to embrace a future of change and implement innovative adaptation strategies that are sustainable for residents, protects coastal environmental resources, and activates economic development. 

The City of Imperial Beach will continue to work with the best climate scientists in the world at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and our friends and partners in the region to ensure that our small little coastal city is able to adapt with prosperity to future sea level rise conditions. 

Serge Dedina is the Mayor of Imperial Beach, California, the Executive Director of WILDCOAST and the author of Saving the Gray Whale and Surfing the Border. He has lived in Imperial Beach since 1971.