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A city sign warns against approaching unstable cliffs at Sunset Cliffs. This area is at extreme risk of further cliff erosion as sea levels rise. / Photo by MacKenzie Elmer

California officials, legislating amid a pandemic, are continuing to focus on preventing the worst outcomes from a future filled with forceful wildfires and rising seas.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins’ SB 1, a bill aimed at mitigating the impacts of sea-level rise, passed the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee this week.

The committee noted the dangers facing San Diego and beyond in its analysis of the bill: “A recent bluff collapse raised concerns that efforts, already underway for 20 years, to stabilize the rail track on steep coastal bluffs in Del Mar is moving too slowly. Construction of an inland rail tunnel will likely take another decade and cost billions. These examples underscore the need to accelerate planning to develop options for resilience and funding for projects.” (VOSD’s MacKenzie Elmer analyzed the efforts to build that tunnel in a fascinating story this week.)

The bill would address sea-level rise in a few ways: It would direct the state’s Coastal Commission to take rising seas into account in its planning efforts and policies, and it would establish a new group tasked with advising government agencies on addressing the problem. The bill analysis noted that new entities or task forces can sometimes be counterproductive: “A new state entity solely focused on sea level rise has merit. A new state entity, however, can take time to start and become effective. … It is not clear that a new collaborative would necessarily provide better coordination and consistency across all of the state entities already working in this space.”

Funding for the bill could come from another Senate measure, SB 45, a $5.5 billion bond that would direct $970 million to coastal protection and restoration.

Atkins plans to address the bill in a Monday press conference with Dr. Margaret Leinen, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Dr. Margaret Leinen.

Addressing the impacts of climate change is on the minds of plenty of other state officials. CalMatters reported this week that the California Department of Parks and Recreation is in the midst of its own reckoning with these issues: “Managing California’s nearly 300 parks will now require a top-to-bottom rethink: How to make public land more resilient to wildfires, rising seas, drought and extreme weather. The price tag for arming state beaches, thinning forests, moving restrooms and visitors’ centers, and other climate-resilience projects has not been calculated. But experts say if the money isn’t spent now to protect parks from rising seas and intensified fires, the damage and costs will multiply.”

Which brings us to …

Becerra Challenges Environmental Reports for Otay Ranch Developments

The California Department of Justice is intervening in lawsuits challenging San Diego County’s approval of two Otay Ranch projects.

The projects, Otay Ranch Resort Village 13 and Otay Ranch Village 14, are located in a high fire-risk area and are part of a 23,000-acre residential development – one of the largest in county history.

In his motion to intervene, Attorney General Xavier Becerra argues that the environmental impact reports for the projects don’t adequately analyze the increased wildfire risk created by bringing thousands of new people and significant development to an undeveloped area – and that they fail to mitigate such impacts.

“Devastating wildfires have become the norm in recent years, with dozens of deaths and whole towns forced to evacuate,” Becerra, who this week was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. “That’s why local governments must address the wildfire risks associated with new developments at the front end. It is imperative for public safety – and required by the law.”

In 2018, the California Natural Resources Agency revised the guidelines under the California Environment Quality Act to establish additional standards for a thorough analysis of wildfire impacts that require that government agencies to evaluate whether a project will exacerbate wildfire risk. The Otay Ranch projects are among several projects in the county seeking to build in wildfire risk zones.

Becerra previously submitted comments related to the issue on Otay Ranch Resort Village 13 in November 2020 and December 2019.

The lawsuits have been brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and raise numerous concerns about the projects, including their impacts on biological resources, greenhouse gas emissions and wildfire.

Becerra’s move “to participate in the lawsuits highlights what we’ve been saying to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for years,” said Peter Broderick, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Greenlighting fire-prone sprawl is a terrible idea and truly hurts local communities. Not only would this project put new and existing residents at risk, it would destroy the habitat of the county’s most sensitive species and worsen the climate crisis.”

As we reported last week, projects in high wildfire risk zones are increasingly difficult for homeowners to insure, another issue lawmakers continue to grapple with.

Maya Srikrishnan

Advocates See Room for Improvement in Fertility Fraud Bill

A bill making its way through the Legislature tackles “fertility fraud” – a term that’s increasingly common with the rise in DNA testing.

Years ago, some doctors, without consent, used their own sperm rather than that of donors to impregnate women who sought fertility treatment. Under Assemblyman Brian Maienschein’s AB 556, victims of fertility fraud can file civil actions against perpetrators – and recover damages of at least $50,000.

But the group Right to Know, which is working on fertility fraud legislation in Iowa, Michigan, Oregon and Washington, would rather see a larger reform of criminal and civil law in California. That includes a complete overhaul of a 1996 state law that forbids the misuse of sperm and embryos in assisted reproduction, but that doesn’t specifically call out physicians.

“I am afraid that by updating the law today with bill AB 556, in the future lawmakers will assume the issue has already been addressed and will be reticent to take up the matter again,” said Kara Rubinstein Deyerin, the CEO of Right to Know.

Traci Portugal, who is also part of Right to Know, echoed the view. Portugal last year filed a complaint with the California Medical Board alleging that a retired San Diego doctor used his own sperm, without her mom’s permission, as part of fertility treatment.

“Although I appreciate the continued discussions and support of CA representatives who understand the need for improved fertility fraud laws in the state of California, I believe there needs to be a fundamental overhaul to the existing laws and statutes,” Portugal wrote in an email.

Maienschein said that AB 556 – along with a 2020 law he wrote that extended the statute of limitations for criminal complaints in fertility fraud cases – represent major steps forward. He added that nothing precludes the Legislature from revisiting the issue after AB 556.

“Pick any topic – education, the environment – we have thousands of bills. No one says, ‘well wait, there’s one already,’” Maienschein said.

But there’s criticism of AB 556 itself, too. Jody Madeira, an Indiana University law professor, believes the bill should spell out who can bring a legal claim, including children conceived through doctors’ unauthorized use of their own sperm.

“You have to specify these things in order to give people the tools to hold individuals accountable,” Madeira said.

Maienschein said the Legislative Counsel of California, which advises members of the Legislature on bills, concluded that AB 556 meets the premise behind the bill – that anyone affected by fertility fraud can bring legal action, such as doctor-conceived children. But he acknowledged that AB 556 may need to be tweaked while going through the legislative process. “I get that attorneys can differ,” Maienschein said.

AB 556 allows victims to bring a private right of action – which is civil litigation when there’s no such remedy on the books.

A spokesman for the California Medical Board said the organization has not discussed the legislation, nor taken a position.

Jared Whitlock

Golden State News

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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