The California coast grew and prospered during a remarkable moment in history when the sea was at its best.
But the mighty Pacific, unaware of everyone, was approaching its final years of a calm but unusual cycle that had lulled dreaming settlers into a false sense of endless summer.
Elsewhere, Miami is drowning, Louisiana is shrinking, North Carolina & # 39; s beaches are disappearing like a lapse of time. While other regions were struggling with destructive waves and rising seas, the West Coast has been spared for decades by a rare confluence of favorable winds and cooler water. This & # 39; suppression of sea level rise & # 39;, as scientists call it, was largely undiscovered. Blinded by the effects of a warming planet, the Californians continued to build on the water's edge.
But lines in the sand are meant to shift. In the last 100 years, the sea has risen less than 9 centimeters in California. By the end of this century, the peak could be greater than 9 feet.
Wildfire and drought dominate the debates about climate change in the state. But this less controversial reality has cornered California. The coastline is eroding with every flood and storm, but everything built before we knew it better – Pacific Coast Highway, houses with millions of dollars in Malibu, the railroad to San Diego – is fixed in place and cannot go anywhere.
But the world is getting hotter, the big ice caps are still melting, the emerging ocean is a slow-moving disaster that has already been thrown past California's front door. Coastal cliffs are crumbling in Pacifica, destroying entire buildings. Balboa Island, barely above sea level, spends 1.8 million dollars to raise the wall that separates it from the ocean.
Winter storms hit a Capistrano Beach boardwalk and turned the idyllic coastline into a construction zone when bulldozers rushed to stack stones in a barricade. From San Diego to the counties of Humboldt, homeowners clamber to ward off increasing erosion and storm surges, begging for officers for larger sea defenses that can stop the even larger ocean.
There are only so many ways to play against the rising sea. Seawall is an option, but they come with hidden costs – they force the sand before they wash away. For every new seawall that protects a house or a road, a beach is sacrificed for the people.
Adding sand to disappearing beaches is another tactic, but that race against nature only lasts as long as there is money and enough sand.
And then there are some scientists, economists and talented consultants & # 39; managed retreat & # 39; call it: going back, moving, essentially relinquishing nature to nature. These few words alone have dared enough of the few cities to pronounce them. Mayors have been deposed, documents rewritten, campaigns conducted on the idea of bringing first-class real estate back to dunes and beaches.
Withdrawal is as un-American as it gets, neighborhood groups explained. To win, California must defend.
But at what price? Should California become a long concrete wall against the ocean? Will there still be sandy beaches or surf breaks to be cherished in the future, houses on the ocean to dream of? More than $ 150 billion in real estate could be in danger of flooding in 2100 – the economic damage is far more devastating than the state's worst earthquakes and fires. Salt marshes, home to coastal birds and endangered species, are threatened with extinction. In Southern California alone, two-thirds of the beaches could disappear.
The state has neither time nor too much time to act, wallowing in crippling battles over the why, who, when and how. It's not too late for the Californians to show the way and plan ahead for sea level rise, experts say, as long as there is the will to accept the bigger picture.
Returning to mud flows and wildfire. Rebuild in flood areas. The human urge to surpass nature is centuries old. We mocked with the legendary frog that turned out to be dead in a pot of slowly warming water – but refused to confront the reality of the sea as it pushes deeper into our cities.
We all played along the coast and built castles in the sand, but seem to forget what happens next: the ocean always wins.
A city on the outskirts
On the cliffs and shores of Pacifica, a postcard piece of coastal communities just south of San Francisco, residents fear that sea level rise planning means that their own community will be sentenced to extinction.
Here, what other cities in California are just starting to fear, is already a much-lived reality. Powerful waves wind over the main pier and threaten roads with names such as Beach Boulevard and Shoreview Avenue. Sandblasting confiscate walls and houses. Windows shatters. Cliffs collapse. Residents testify to entire sections of hill crumbling in the surf below.
In one part of the city, the ocean chewed more than 90 feet of bluff in less than a decade.
People were able to walk Pacifica like a whole stretch of beach in the 1970s, but the open coastline shrank over the years as the city built sea defenses, piled up rocks, covered the fragile sandstone cliffs with special concrete to protect what nature took by force .
Today, most of the Pacifica coast is armored. But even with these defenses, the city still had to buy a row of houses with a bluff head, which later turned the street into a path. Down in the sand, more houses were removed and a public parking lot was rebuilt 50 meters further inland.
Along Beach Boulevard, caution dog walkers and joggers that waves can break over the seawall. The pavement is often wet with high surf. Cars are encouraged to keep moving. The locals are wise enough not to linger too long at the aging pier.
A woman who did that was hit in 2006 by a wave that blew past. When she was finally able to breathe and open her eyes, she was dumbfounded when she noticed that she had been hit to the back of someone's garage, her arm hooked by a barbecue pit.
The shocks continued. Years of drought followed by heavy storms in 2016 forced more than a dozen homes with a bluff top to be labeled as unsafe. Three apartment buildings – which suddenly dangled on the edge – could not be saved and were demolished.
Responding to just this most recent El Niño season has cost Pacifica $ 16 million – no small change for a city whose operating budget of $ 36 million depends primarily on property taxes. Civil servants are still looking for funds to cover damages from 2016 and are stuck in an outstanding domain battle over two of the buildings.
Pacifica has become this story of unplanned, forced retreat, experts say, and the public got stuck in the bill.
"There are public costs and private costs with every choice we make, and we must start with that cost-benefit analysis," says Charles Lester, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center at UC Santa Barbara, who has consulted a number of cities, including Pacifica, on sea level rise planning. "If we don't withdraw now, how much will it cost later?"
In hundreds of pages with planning documents, officials concluded that moving the interior in the coming decades might be the most cost-effective option for a number of neighborhoods. Sea defenses continue to fail, they said, and the ocean is winning. A large part of the protection of the coastline can be overwhelmed with only 1 foot of sea level rise.
But many of them protested against the proposal, prompted by a real estate rights campaign by the real estate sector. Homeowners flooded city gatherings, knocked on neighbors' doors and pasted signs in the city. The mayor became the punching bag of the city and new leaders were voted to help Pacifica.
"& # 39; Managed retreat & # 39; is the code word to give up – at home and in the city itself & # 39;" said Mark Stechbart, who worries that Pacifica, and in turn the value of his own house, will be rejected by future developers, insurers and buyers. "This is not just an intellectual exercise. These are real people and a real city at stake. "
For Suzanne Drake, a volunteer from historical society who raised enough money during the recession to buy "the ugliest house on the nicest street in town", talking about managed retreat has aroused an anger she didn't know.
The words are like a scarlet letter, she said. How can someone get a 30-year mortgage if city documents show that the entire street might be sentenced and turned into a beach in the future? How does she get insurance or a permit to renovate her house?
"The public has rights on the beach, but apparently I have no rights to my house," she said after a particularly heated meeting that struck homeowners against conservationists. "I am a left-from-left democrat, but these environmental fanatics are of the next level."
The problem has divided this close-knit city, whose residents open conversations by mentioning the number of years they have lived here and – in recent months – how many meters they live above sea level. Outbursts at city council meetings have become the norm, and depending on who is angry on that day, environmental activists, the real estate sector, the city or the California Coastal Commission are enemy number 1.
The specter of managed retreat has made retired engineers, policymakers – even the president of the local Democratic Club – to speak alongside real estate groups, fearing that Pacifica will become "an economic wasteland" if the long-term vision withdraws. They accuse the study of the city of undervaluing homes, businesses, hiking trails, and golf courses when calculating the public benefits of letting go. Preserving tourism, business and development opportunities, they said, should be a plan for the future.
Others say that Pacifica has already survived its time. There is a reason why an empty waterfront plot has not been able to attract developers for years, they said, and why the Taco Bell can still afford excellent oceanfront views.
How much Pacifica ultimately decides to withdraw, both parties agree, could be the litmus test for what will happen to the rest of California.
Drake was on her second floor one morning and talked about the roar of sand floaters clearing roads. The area floods when waves rise above the sea wall or there is a break in the roadside. The city inserts a pump in the winter to push rainwater back into the ocean.
Without that sea wall or roadside, her neighborhood and the nearby golf course would easily flood. Without this type of defense, sewer pipes, waste water treatment plants, schools and other public infrastructure would be at risk.
What officials need to do, Drake said, is to build larger sea defenses and commit to save the city. She sees Pacifica about to become something special – a city that could finally have a nice library, or a beautiful center with coffee houses and places to shop.
The large white house next door sold for more than $ 1.5 million not long ago, she said. Pacifica is still worth something, so why should officials let it go?
City administrators have responded to the reaction and rewritten their plan to tackle the rising sea. The most important sea defenses are expanded and the words & # 39; managed retreat & # 39; have been replaced in the coming decades by references to & # 39; environmental triggers & # 39; for & # 39; adjustment strategies & # 39 ;.
Many still distrust where this document is going. John Keener, who defended the issue as mayor before losing his re-election bid, wonders how much will change among the new leaders in power.
Walking along Esplanade Avenue on a recent afternoon, Keener points to the orange tape and pieces of foundation that still protrude from where once apartment buildings stood. Only the odd-numbered houses on this block remain, the even-numbered side gives way to a beautiful view of the ocean.
Keener, a retired biochemist, doubts the words "managed retreat" and says he does not want to devalue someone's house or give up the city. He only looked at the data and tried to think ahead.
The city has little money to build larger sea defenses, no money for sand replenishment, no money to compensate homeowners for the loss of their property. So he reasoned that Pacifica had a better chance of getting external funding by showing that he had devised every option and devised a plan.
Worrying about what this planning document would do with its own values is a privilege with an expiration date. He is afraid that in 2050, "this stuff will all get in turmoil."
"We will be in survival mode," he said. "The other aspects of climate change will simply overwhelm us as a society."
He brings out his new business card with the words & # 39; Environmental Advocate & # 39 ;. & # 39; What kind of world & # 39 ;, he wondered, & # 39; are we going to our children and grandchildren? & # 39;
Protection at what price?
Your house is your castle, the largest investment that most families make. So the impulse is of course to defend it.
The seawall is the go-to tactic. Made from piles of boulders, gunite-clad cliffs or concrete slabs as high as two floors, sea defenses expel wave energy and retain running water. But these defenses are not cheap. A single homeowner can spend a whopping $ 200,000. A mile-long wall can cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Repairs sometimes cost just as much as the wall itself.
Defending the entire state can cost homeowners and taxpayers more than $ 22 billion in the next 20 years if the sea even rises modestly, according to a recent study by the Center for Climate Integrity.
And every seawall is a choice, consciously or not, to sacrifice the beach in front. The barriers disturb the natural replenishment of sand, remove beaches until they diminish or disappear completely. Some states have banned new sea defenses: Oregon, North Carolina, Maine. Others have imposed considerable restrictions.
In California, environmentalists have called sea defenses a coastal crisis. The Coastal Commission, which is responsible for regulating and shaping the 1,200-mile-long coastline, has provided them with historically OKD in emergency situations – temporary solutions after a severe storm.
But temporary often becomes permanent. About 30% of Southern California's coastline today is behind some form of seawall – locking in naval bases, railways, ports, and millions of homes at the expense of open space.
"Sea defenses kill beaches," said Jennifer Savage, California policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation. "I feel like a broken record saying this, but there is still such a & kittens to the public about such a major, simple message: sea level rise is not only affecting homeowners; it affects every person who wants to go to the beach. "
And the beach, according to state law, belongs to everyone. So the Coastal Commission of recent years has become increasingly strict on the seawall. It urged city leaders to make every effort to consider alternative options, including managed retreat.
But the committee of friends of homeowners and local planners did not win that position. Heads of city often blame the state and the commission for taking unpopular steps. But the committee, when confronted with the public, says it only offers guidance.
More than 30 cities and provinces have now been left paralyzed, moving left and right to do something – but not sure what that is. There is no clear overview of directions, no one-size-fits-all solution.
For the homeowner, insurance policies, risk subsidies and federal disaster relief are all set up in a way that encourages reconstruction rather than relocation. There is no incentive for owners to consider options that go beyond craving larger and better walls. The way the state reduces insurance prices also masks the actual cost of living in a dangerous environment.
But the more dangerous it becomes, the more the public could pay: as rising seas and storms aggravate property damage, experts fear that the inability of insurers to charge prices that reflect the real risk could lead to the stopping of the coverage in California.
If insurers no longer cover risky objects, the state becomes the last resort.
That happened with an earthquake insurance, when California stepped in to stabilize the market with insurance that companies could sell instead of their own. Officials now confront this in nature reserves. Similar pressure is taking place in hurricane-prone states, according to a Stanford survey led by a former coastal commissioner.
And so states, and ultimately taxpayers, are those who are subject to the greatest financial risks when a disaster strikes.
Judy Taylor, a state director of the California Assn. van Realtors, who has been living along the coast in the Half Moon Bay area for 45 years, said uncertainty about sea level rise planning has curbed her world of clear rules and clean transactions.
Brokers are bound. Unlike other danger zones in California, there are no mandatory disclosures for homes that may be subject to relocation or other sea level rise plans in the future. Clearly defined disclosures would help people better understand whether the house they are buying can actually be a long-term investment.
"Right now we're going to sabotage the seller's transaction if we reveal too much," Taylor said. & # 39; If we don't announce enough, the buyer will get a severe heartburn. & # 39;
What is being discussed by her industry is not so much climate change, she said, but how long owners can extend the life and value of homes – and how they can do that while navigating the bureaucratic coastal permit system.
"We've had to deal with real estate for bridges, for roads, even for shopping centers. But we've never dealt with the fact that Mother Nature is going to do what she's going to do, and we can't help it," Taylor said. "So how do we treat this problem fairly and fairly? Are these policies really going to promote the goal, create a better outcome for the environment – and will your ox be nursed and mine released? & # 39;
On one side of San Francisco, an ancient seawall keeps the iconic towers and skyscrapers of the city firmly on land.
On the other hand, a rock face protects a road, a parking lot and a sewage treatment plant – snapping away one of the few beaches in the city.
Something has to be given. But even in a city that is as climate conscious as San Francisco, it is not easy to make sacrifices.
What used to be the commercial core of the city was once mostly a swamp – the coastline a muddy half mile inland. Over the decades, settlers filled in these wetlands and created more than 500 acres of new land on top of old bays and abandoned ships.
All the water is holding back the Embarcadero, which doubles as a tourist attraction and is now bustling with visitors and school children, markets and museums. Humming beneath their feet is a network of critical infrastructure – sewerage and water systems, utility pipes, public transportation, communication cables – that can dive into the ocean without the seawall.
There is no doubt defense that must survive here. This colossal stone and concrete feat stops San Francisco Bay from drowning the financial district and Market Street, and saving around $ 100 billion in businesses and buildings.
But the wall is crumbling and urgently needs a backup. Flood flows routinely and flood sections of the boardwalk. With just 3 meters more sea level rise, the iconic Ferry Building can flood every day.
Updating this seawall costs at least $ 2 billion, probably much more. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey recently discovered that the cost of building dikes, sea defenses and other measures to withstand a 6½ meter rise in sea level and a 100-year storm could cost $ 450 billion for San Francisco Bay.
Letting people worry has not been one of a day. Lindy Lowe, the Port of San Francisco resilience officer, reflected on all neighborhood meetings, family nights, and door knockers to help taxpayers understand the issue.
It was crucial, she learned, to work with the community right from the start instead of doing all the research behind the scenes and then dropping a report full of government mumbo jumbo in which the city perished.
"Never start a conversation with rising sea levels is what we have learned. Begin the conversation with: & # 39; What interests you? How do you want your community to look? & # 39; & # 39; Said Lowe." We ask people to do really big things, and we have to make sure we don't ask them to do everything at once. "
So San Francisco started asking voters for $ 425 million to lay the foundation for a larger seawall. Last fall, 82% said yes – a huge achievement in a world where the distribution of so much money usually only takes place after a major disaster.
Defense turned out to be a viable sale, but withdrawal on the other side of the city was much more convincing.
On South Ocean Beach, a popular spot for great surfing and bonfires, more than 275 feet could disappear in 2100. The waves once devoured more than 40 feet of bluff in one season. For years, city administrators – even an indictment of the state – fought to preserve a protective rock face.
There was Great Highway to defend, they argued, and also critical facilities underground. In accordance with the Clean Water Act, the city had just spent nearly $ 1 billion on building infrastructure to prevent untreated sewage from entering the ocean. Utilities officials wavered at the thought of withdrawal. But with every season more beaches disappeared.
It was a choice between two environmental requirements: maintaining a popular beach or having clean water? SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Assn., Eventually came in to gather all the city, state, and federal authorities when they picked their victims.
They had few examples to look at for guidance. Only a handful of managed retreat efforts were going on in California at the time – and each was a lesson in the costs and time needed to give up.
More than 200 miles south of the coastal highway, at Hearst Castle and the Piedras Blancas Light Station, Caltrans spent $ 57 million moving a 2.5-kilometer stretch of Highway 1 more than 400 feet inland. Coastal bluffs by that time eroded on average almost 5 feet a year. Planning and approvals took almost 15 years.
Moving the highway and three houses was a victory for the public, adding 75 hectares to Hearst San Simeon State Park and creating new coastal paths. The open area is now a popular stop for motorists, who marvel at the many sea elephants that return every year to mate and look after their puppies.
Ventura County officials spent nearly two decades getting all the pieces in place to turn an eroding parking lot and a collapsing bike path into a cobblestone beach, supported by overgrown dunes. This has withstood storm tides and the beach is now one of the most popular in the province.
And across the nation, buyout programs & # 39; s so far are mostly after disasters and mainly in less wealthy communities. These, too, needed time. Two years after Hurricane Harvey, some Texas residents are still waiting for their turn. In New York, countless neighborhoods begged for buyouts after Superstorm Sandy – but civil servants could afford so much. And even with $ 120 million, which bought 300 homes on Staten Island, that funding would probably amount to 10 homes in Malibu.
After years of deliberation, San Francisco finally agreed to tear down the rock wall, remove two lanes from the coastal road and turn the open space into a coastal path.
Even this plan for withdrawal came with some compromises: a shorter, "inconspicuous wall" will protect the wastewater treatment plants. With sand replenishment, in the order of 2 million cubic meters every few decades, the beach loss of this wall is balanced.
Homes and personal fortunes were not even at stake in this case, but choosing one public good relative to the other proved equally charged.
"No one was in charge of the big picture," said Benjamin Grant, who led the Ocean Beach Master Plan of SPUR. "But if you start early, it can be considerably less painful … than waiting for a crisis."
Officials have since convened a task force at sea level, prepared an action plan and adopted new regional strategies. Finding the long-term answers, many now say, requires that more than just packets be considered and, instead, coordinated across city limits and the entire coastline looked at.
"The whole region will have to see these considerations on a large scale. It is very possible that your beaches will be wiped out in one part of the coast and stored on other parts of the coast … but we are ill equipped," Aaron said. Peskin, a San Francisco supervisor who does both the California Coastal Commission. and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. "It is planned retreat or unplanned retreat. Somehow we will have to give up something. … So if we do it right, shouldn't we plan a sensible package?"
Big-picture planning has proved possible elsewhere. In the state of Washington, leaders promise no overall net loss of the remaining wetlands off the coast. Een vergelijkbare benadering in Californië zou kunnen helpen beslissen wat te redden en wat te laten: vernietig hier een strand om kritieke infrastructuur te beschermen; ga ergens anders heen en herstel een strand.
David Revell, een kustgeomorfoloog die voor een aantal steden heeft geraadpleegd, zei dat dit soort beleid leiders dwingt te overwegen welke offers kunnen worden gebracht versus waar langs de kust moet worden verdedigd.
"Kies waar," zei hij. "Zeg het gewoon niet overal."
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Het aanvullen van stranden
Een race tegen de natuur
Mensen praten vaak over het strand als een ding, een plaats, een gebied dat niet beweegt. In werkelijkheid is een strand meer een proces.
Stel je een rivier van zand voor die parallel aan de kust beweegt, van Malibu naar Santa Monica naar Manhattan Beach, totdat de oceaan hem voor de kust trekt. Dit zand is altijd in beweging, stroomt van bergstromen en waterwegen en stopt slechts tijdelijk op een specifiek strand.
Elke menselijke verstoring van deze rivier van zand zou zich elders kunnen openbaren. Pacifica kan zo snel ten onder gaan, omdat al het zand achter de kust in de Baai van San Francisco verder is gebaggerd. Veel stranden van Malibu hebben aanzienlijke hoeveelheden zand verloren na de aanleg van de Pacific Coast Highway. In Santa Monica bereikt vers sediment zelden de kust nu mensen de kreken hebben afgedamd en de L.A. Rivier hebben veranderd in een betonnen kanaal.
Los Angeles reageerde op deze veranderingen van de natuur met meer wijzigingen. Zand toevoegen aan het strand begon al in de jaren 1930 in Santa Monica Bay. Golfbrekers, steigers en andere retentiestructuren zijn ook geconstrueerd om te helpen bij het vasthouden van al het zand. Als gevolg hiervan zijn deze iconische stranden 150 tot 500 voet breder dan normaal.
Strandsteden zoals Del Mar, een kleine welgestelde enclave ten noorden van San Diego, hebben dit alles verklaard als hun overlevingstactiek.
Verscholen tussen zandstenen rotswanden, twee lagunes en de zeldzaamste pijnbomen in Amerika, bruist het pittoreske stadje elke zomer wanneer het beursterrein en het paardenspoor tot leven komen. Prime vastgoedclusters rond waar de San Dieguito-rivier de Stille Oceaan ontmoet.
Droog zand was hier ooit overvloedig, het strand nu twee keer zo breed. Particuliere zeeweringen beschermen nu huizen van miljoenen dollars die vroege kolonisten precies in het zand hadden gebouwd. Aan de zuidkant van de stad lopen treinrails gevaarlijk dicht bij de rand van snel afbrokkelende kliffen.
Maar toen bekend werd dat de leiding overweegt om zich terug te trekken, explodeerde de stad. Verhuizen kan betekenen dat de oceaan maar liefst 600 huizen mag claimen.
Als je begint terug te trekken, eisten de bewoners, waar stop je?
"Als je de eerste rij huizen laat gaan, stroomt het hele gebied erachter", zegt Jon Corn, een inwoner en advocaat van tientallen huiseigenaren in de Del Mar Beach Preservation Coalition. "En hoe zit het met de volgende weg? En de weg daarna? … Op een gegeven moment gaat iedereen zeggen: 'Nee, we zullen ons niet zomaar terugtrekken uit de oceaan.' "
Stadsbestuurders waren het uiteindelijk eens en zeiden dat ze open zouden staan voor de verplaatsing van de spoorlijn, de brandweerkazerne en andere infrastructuur in de stad – maar schakelde elke vermelding van privé-eigendom uit. Het land hier is te waardevol, redeneerden ze, en de dreiging van rechtszaken te hoog. Adding sand will be the solution for now.
Terry Gaasterland, a data scientist who led the sea level task force and ended up running for office over the issue, said she’s confident more studies and more time will uncover ways to coexist with the ocean and save the town.
Del Mar can afford to both protect homes and save the beach, said Gaasterland, who’s now on the City Council. “We’re not going to be packing our bags.”
But if past sand projects are any indicator, Del Mar and its neighbors might be in for a surprise. For every jetty and breakwater that has helped keep Santa Monica and Venice wide and sandy, Dockweiler and beaches farther down the coast in turn needed their own supply of sand, which then disappeared and flowed onto beaches farther south.
Sand, although it might seem limitless, is not free. It’s the most exploited and consumed natural resource in the world after fresh water. Federal agencies, states, cities and private companies across the nation are all trying to stake their claim.
And because sand is always on the move, adding more of it is anything but permanent. Erosion runs its course all the same.
This makes “beach nourishment” difficult to sustain. Adding 240,000 cubic yards of sand — the amount, for example, to make a half-mile-long beach about 100 feet wide — requires 24,000 dump trucks full of sand. Even working seven days a week, it would take more than 16 months to bring in that much sand. Depending on how fast the sand washes away, a project of this scale would need to be repeated every few years, according to reports by Gary Griggs, who has studied coastal systems across California and taught at UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of Marine Sciences for more than 50 years.
In 2001, officials in San Diego County pumped about 2 million cubic yards of sand from offshore onto 12 beaches — the first large-scale attempt by California officials to add sand to disappearing beaches. It cost city, state and federal taxpayers $17.5 million.
The effort was short-lived. Most of the beaches had narrowed significantly by the following year. The extra sand, Griggs found, “was removed within a day when the first large waves of the winter arrived.” A second attempt by the county — with twice as much money — yielded similar results.
These costs have also paralyzed communities along Malibu’s disappearing shoreline. Broad Beach, once so wide that dunes had room to grow along the sand, now hardly lives up to its name. Building mansions on the sand also took up about 200 feet of the beach and dunes, leaving only a narrow buffer against the rising sea.
Sand was disappearing so rapidly that a rock wall was built to protect the septic system and the homes. These days, there is little beach left during high tide. The public stairs drop straight down into water.
Owners years ago agreed to pay $19 million to add sand to the beach. The project has been delayed by disputes over the source of sand and legal challenges over the costs, which keep going up. The current price tag to save this stretch of beach: $65 million.
Grappling with retreat
At the very southernmost edge of California, a world away from Malibu, the border town of Imperial Beach seems to be living on borrowed time.
One-fifth of the residents here are lower-income. High tide soaks the road every winter. Sewage spilling from Tijuana regularly shuts down the beach. Those living below sea level recall floodwaters so high in the 1980s that they had to use canoes.
Today, they board up windows and brace for storms. Surrounded by the ocean, a bay and a river, Imperial Beach is looking at losing one-third of the town if nothing is done, one official said. Hazard maps show blocks and blocks of homes that could be flooded by 2100. A beach nourishment effort seven years ago went awry because the sand grains were too coarse. Sand berms and rock walls will last only so long. Moving back seems inevitable, even if the community isn’t ready to say so.
The reptilian frenzy over managed retreat has overtaken Imperial Beach, as it has in other cities. Fear overwhelms reason. Conspiracy theories and misinformation abound. Some think the mayor, an environmentalist known for his history of preserving open space, just wants to turn the town into one giant lagoon.
With the city barely able to scrap together a $20-million budget every year, others say letting go of prime real estate means abandoning the whole town.
“If you get rid of the waterfront, the municipal tax base, how do you support the city?” said City Councilman Ed Spriggs, who lives along the water and questioned managed retreat as a strategy. He points to the city’s first upscale hotel, which was built in 2013 with coastal defenses, as a sign that Imperial Beach has time to survive and thrive well into the future.
As chair of the coastal cities group for the League of California Cities, Spriggs sees what’s been happening across the state and calls managed retreat an ideology being pushed by extreme environmentalists with no rules or standards.
“Nobody has explained how urbanized managed retreat works, what it would look like and how it would be paid for,” he said. “We need time to build a consensus. We don’t even have money for … more detailed studies on what the actual costs will be.”
But time is ticking. Earlier this year, a group of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography gathered on an apartment balcony and watched in awe as the ocean devoured more than 3 feet of sand in one morning.
“When that surge came over the seawall, it was just a blanket of water. There was so much force,” said Mark Merrifield, director of Scripps’ Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation. “It was just crazy.”
His team has been studying ways to forecast floods and were watching that morning because they knew the waves would be particularly powerful. Their data had projected that this would come just ahead of a king tide — when the sun, moon and Earth are aligned closest together, creating a higher-than-high tide. They had alerted Imperial Beach, which filled more than 500 sandbags just in time and warned residents to board up their homes.
These king tides are becoming a new normal, said Merrifield, whose team hopes to fill in data gaps that could help more communities better understand their risks. Imperial Beach doesn’t even track the number of times the ocean tops the seawall — crews just clean the road before most residents wake up.
Tracking the frequency of flood events, and how much it’s increasing, will make these truths harder to ignore. There’s no debate, he said. “Sea level rise is the heart of climate change. That’s where all the heat is going: into the ocean.”
That rising ocean, for decades, had spared California. Much of the state’s coastal development took place in the years after World War II, during the less stormy period of a climate cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Favorable winds pulled warmer water offshore and the West Coast had cool, denser water that took up less volume — suppressing the rate of sea rise below the global average.
But scientists in the last decade have seen a dramatic shift: The waters off the West Coast are now much warmer; the sea is now rising faster here than elsewhere in the world.
The morning after the worst of the surge, Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina parked his Prius and hopped around puddles still pooling down Seacoast Drive. Waves, still breaking over the rock barriers, spewed sand across the road. A maintenance worker sprinted toward the nearest driveway, startled by yet another rush of water.
An avid surfer, Dedina has watched this ocean obsessively his whole life. But taming the water has been all-consuming. Cleaning up just from this king tide cost Imperial Beach $16,000 and left 350 hours of calls unanswered and other work unattended to around town.
Imperial Beach can’t afford more seawalls, more sand, more meetings filled with 150 people yelling at him about managed retreat, he said. The town doesn’t even have a Parks Department. It just got its first real grocery store.
The city and its consultants have come up with some big ideas — but lack the political support and capital to get started. Buy out these first few row of homes along the coast, for example, and rent them at market value. Three decades of rent should be enough to recoup the costs. The city or a land trust at that time could then decide what to do with the properties.
For now, Dedina is focused on relocating some public infrastructure and building more homes and businesses further inland. He’s also suing a number of oil companies in hopes of funding, arguing that they should be held responsible for the costs of coastal flooding because their emissions contribute to sea level rise.
“Ultimately, the city can’t protect private property owners. We need to be upfront about that,” he said. “The insurance industry or the state needs to figure that one out.”
The state has taken some action but is largely still confronting this 21st century problem with decades-old laws and thinking. The California Coastal Act — the defining road map to managing the state’s shoreline — did not factor in sea level rise when it was written in 1976.
Lawmakers are aware of the problem, and they have told cities they must start addressing climate adaptation in their planning. But Sacramento has otherwise shied away from issuing mandatory directions. The California Coastal Commission, through modest grants and some general guidance, has been encouraging local officials to consider “everything in the toolkit, including managed retreat,” when updating city policies.
Phil King, an economist and professor at San Francisco State University who has consulted for a number of beach cities, said that what Californians need is a clear statewide plan. Managed retreat sounds scary, but it just means retreating with everyone knowing what the rules are, he said. Will there be a public subsidy, how is it going to be applied, who’s going to get it, and does everyone think it’s fair?
Bankruptcy law could be a model, he said, because it makes a messy process as orderly as possible. Managed retreat is similar: Dealing with a loss and making sure that everyone absorbs the loss in the most reasonable, equitable way.
“Right now, managed retreat is just a slogan. It needs to become a reality where we actually talk about: How are we going to actually manage the retreat?” said King, whose studies showed that retreat does end up penciling out for many communities as the most cost-effective solution in the long run. “If we start to think about managed retreat today, we can avoid the problems that people had with the fires in Paradise, where all of a sudden everything just disappears.”
Imperial Beach’s buyback-and-rent proposal is one idea, he said. And if a seawall has to exist in the short term to protect private property or infrastructure, perhaps a greater authority like the State Lands Commission could charge rent for it. These funds could then be used toward other efforts to manage and preserve the coastline.
Much of California’s climate change efforts have centered on reducing carbon emissions and the rate of global warming, rather than dealing with how to live with these increasing hazards, said Heather Cooley, research director of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland think tank that has studied the economic impact of sea level rise.
“We need to do both,” she said. “We’re already locked into a certain amount of climate change, and we need to adapt to the effects that we know we’re going to be experiencing.”
A few bills under consideration now in Sacramento acknowledge these problems — appointing a chief climate resilience officer, calling for a plan to reuse dredged sand for coastal restoration projects, creating an inventory of the state’s wetlands and a special fund for “coastal adaptation, access and resilience” — but none tackles managed retreat head-on.
“Living shorelines,” which substitute seawalls with vegetation that could serve both as protection and public open space, has been gaining popularity as a less politically fraught approach. Some lawmakers see this as a way to buy more time as the backlash over relocation continues.
The fear of political suicide should not paralyze those in power from studying the how, where and why of managed retreat, said Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist at Stanford who has helped lead national and global climate change assessments.
In the same way state leaders paved the way on other environmental issues, what California does now on managed retreat could help set some standards for others across the country, she said.
Jack Ainsworth, executive director of the Coastal Commission, points to the work his agency has done within its legal power.
Commissioners are tough on any new construction that gets in the way of the rising sea. They passed a resolution last year pledging that seawalls would be permitted only if absolutely necessary. They’re butting heads with homeowners and real estate groups, drafting a new guidance document for cities to use to balance preserving coastal resources and protecting homes.
Beyond that, he said, the commission is stuck. Only lawmakers can establish new disclosure laws. Only state, city and federal leaders can determine how much money they are willing to spend to come up with a clear plan for the future, and ultimately, how to pay for the retreat where necessary.
Across the state, and the nation, many people know the sea is coming and exactly what’s at risk — but no one seems ready to drop that first domino and rattle the status quo. “This conspiracy of silence,” as one economist from the Union of Concerned Scientists publicly called it, can go on for only so long. Society as a whole saves $6 in avoided costs for every $1 spent to acquire or demolish flood-prone buildings before disaster hits, Ainsworth said.
When staff is short or pressure comes from those wealthy enough to fight back in perpetuity, the Coastal Commission has in the past pushed tough issues down the road. But Ainsworth said California cannot afford that with sea level rise.
“People have to understand,” he said, “that this is a crisis.”
A lost coast
A few winding turns past Bodega Bay, about an hour north of San Francisco, relentless waves pound against a stretch of coastline whose fate has been paralyzed by political inaction.
Once referred to as Malibu North, Gleason Beach now feels more like the edge of the world — a window into the future if California does not change course. Nine homes perch on crumbling cliffs that drop 30 some feet onto a beach that appears only during low tide. A pile of seawalls, smashed into pieces, clutters the shore.
Rebar and bits of concrete poke out here and there — a graveyard of more than 10 other homes that once also faced the sea. Highway 1, hanging inches from the edge, had to shut one traffic lane this year.
“Behold your highway tax dollars falling into the ocean,” locals say. But efforts to move 0.6 miles of this critical road about 400 feet inland have taken more than a decade. Residents, environmentalists, and state, county and transportation officials are still arguing over the details.
Mary Cook remembers moving into a seaside cottage from the 1930s. Photos back then showed the house with a 20-foot yard. Stairs led down to the beach.
Her husband, an architect, made a few additions to their home as the bluff continued to erode about a foot a year. They put up a seawall. But then in the winter of 1997, one big storm took out the entire cliffside. Officials came in and declared an emergency.
When Cook opened her sliding door, “there was nothing,” she said. “You looked straight down into the ocean.”
Life for her neighbors eventually carried on. The storm ebbed from memory. The sun re-emerged. The Cooks, however, were tired of buying time.
They jacked their home up from its foundation, called in a truck and moved to higher ground.
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