The Impact of Sea Level Rise on Californians’ Right to Beach Access:

How the Public Trust Doctrine protects the public’s right to use coastal lands and waters

Who owns the beaches in California? Does the public have the right to access and use all beaches in the State? What are your rights to access and use beaches and how you can impact coastal development decisions that affect both the public’s rights and wildlife habitats in the tidelands areas.

Section 4 of Article X of the California Constitution guarantees the public access to coastal lands. In 1976, the enactment of the California Coastal Act codified the public’s right to coastal access and use and issued guidance for determining how coastal lands are to be developed. These protections mean that in California the public is to have maximum access to State natural resources such as the sea and its shores and use of waters and waterways. Tidelands are also to be preserved in a natural state in order to protect scenic and wildlife habitats. The Public Trust Doctrine, a concept that has its roots in Roman history and has been expanded by U.S. common law and California court decisions, also establishes that tidelands, submerged lands and other navigable waterways are all held in trust by the State for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the public. Under this concept, the government is responsible for the protection and management of these lands and waters for the public.

As sea levels rise, however, the analysis of what constitutes Public Trust lands is becoming more complex. Tidelands are the areas that exist between the ordinary high-water mark (also known as the mean high tide line – MHTL) and the ordinary low-water mark of tidal waters. Please read “Who owns the beach?” on the California Coastal Commission’s website and visit this link for a visual depiction of how the MHTL can move back and forth throughout the year as sand moves on and off the shore. With the MHTL changing over time due to the dynamic nature of the coast, the boundary line that separates Public Trust from non-public lands depends on beach conditions and erosion, and the existence of shoreline development that can impede the natural tidal fluctuations. In addition, as sea levels rise, the ambulatory nature of the MHTL is being impacted further.

In November 2021, Dr. Charles Lester, the Director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center at the University of California Santa Barbara, issued a report detailing the adverse effects of sea level rise on Public Trust lands and the legal, policy and technical issues relating to the protection of shoreline resources. This analysis was considered by the California Coastal Commission when it issued draft guidelines in June 2022 that incorporated public and tribal comments and were drafted in coordination with the State Lands Commission.

As sea levels rise, it is important to carry out the California Coastal Act in a way that is consistent with the Public Trust Doctrine. Environmental preservation is key to protecting wildlife and their habitats especially where development prevents public trust lands from moving inland. The ongoing ‘coastal squeeze’ in California prevents habitats from also migrating inland and impacts public access and use of coastal lands.

The public’s voice matters and affects the decisions made by governmental entities. Please stay informed by joining the California Coastal Commission email list here. You can participate in the process and make sure that the public’s right to beach access is protected.