California Against The Sea


Despite this, the vast Pacific Ocean was reaching the conclusion of a peaceful but uncommon cycle that had misled hopeful settlers into believing that summer would never end. No one realized this until it was too late.

The beaches of North Carolina are fading like a time lapse with no end in Miami, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico. As devastating waves and rising seas ravaged other parts of the country, the West Coast was spared thanks to a rare combination of favorable winds and calmer water. Researchers have referred to the phenomenon as "sea level rise suppression." 

Still, Californians ignored the dangers of global warming and continued to build structures to the water's edge not really knowing the coming dangers. Over the last 100 years, rise in sea level was just around 9 inches throughout the state of California. The surge might reach more than 9 feet by the end of this century. The state's climate change concerns are dominated by discussions of wildfires and drought. California has seized control of this little-discussed fact and we begin to realize that everything erected before is all in  danger of coastal erosion; the Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu's multimillion-dollar residences, and the rail connection to San Diego, are near those coastal areas and can't be moved.

There is no doubt that the planet is growing hotter, the huge ice sheets continue to melt, and the rising ocean is a slow-moving threat that has already passed by California's front door. Coastal cliffs in Pacifica are eroding, causing whole structures to collapse. $1.8 million is being spent to raise the wall that separates Balboa island from the ocean. Capistrano Beach was transformed into a construction zone as bulldozers hurried to build rocks into a barrier after winter storms battered the boardwalk. Homeowners from San Diego to Humboldt counties are begging with the government for larger seawalls that can keep back an even larger ocean, in an effort to combat growing erosion and storm surges.

It's impossible to win a battle against the rising seas in every manner. However, building seawalls has an unintended consequence: they cause the sand in front of them to wash away. Every time a barrier is built to defend a house or a road, a public beach is lost.

Another strategy is to add sand to receding beaches, but this race against nature only lasts as long as money and sand are available.

Neighborhood groups said the retreat was as un-American as it could be. Still, Cali must defend in order to win.

But how much will it cost? Should California become a barrier to the ocean by building a continuous concrete wall? If not, will there still be sand and waves to enjoy and coastal properties to aspire to in the future? By 2100, more than $150 billion in property might be in danger of flooding, which could cause more economic damage than the greatest earthquakes and wildfires in the state. Endangered animals such as shorebirds and otters depend on salt marshes for their survival. Two-thirds of the beaches in Southern California are in risk of disappearing.

With little time or too much time, the state spirals into debilitating disputes over who, when and how to act. When it comes to dealing with rising sea levels, experts believe it isn't too late to lead the way and prepare ahead in California.

As humans, we've always had a strong desire to outdo the natural world. We laugh at the legend of the frog that died after being submerged in a pot of gently warming water, but we refuse to face the truth of the sea's increasing inundation of our urban areas.

We've all gone to the beach and constructed sandcastles, but we seem to have forgotten that the ocean always wins.

Scientific and economic experts and number-crunching consultants refer to "managed retreat" as another option which is to relocate and give the area back to nature. Those few cities that dared to proclaim them were rocked by those words alone. Many mayors have been ousted, plans reworked or campaigns conducted against the idea of reverting prized real land to dunes and beaches.


A Town Within The Edge

Near San Francisco's southernmost tip, in an area known as "The Bluffs and Shores of Pacifica," inhabitants worry that failing to prepare for sea level rise could spell the end of their little coastal town as we know it.

What other California communities are just starting to worry about in the abstract is now a much-lived reality. Roads like Beach Boulevard and Shoreview Avenue are under danger as huge waves crash over the main pier. Walls and dwellings are battered by sand blasts. Windows shatter. The cliffs crumble to the ground. Residents may see huge sections of the mountainside fall into the ocean below them.

In less than a decade, the ocean claimed more than 90 feet of bluff in a single area of town.

Until the 1970s, Pacifica's open coast could be walked the whole length of the shoreline, but as the city erected seawalls, pilings of rocks, and unique concrete coatings on its delicate sandstone cliffs to safeguard what nature was taking by force.

A large portion of the Pacifica coastline has been fortified in recent years. However, even with these safeguards, the city had to buy out a row of bluff-top residences and subsequently convert and transform it into a hiking route. More residences that were on the sand were demolished  and a public parking lot was placed instead.

Signs warn dog walkers and joggers along Beach Boulevard that the seawall may be breached. High waves often cause the pavement to become muddy. Vehicles are recommended to maintain their current speed. Locals know better than to spend too much time on the deteriorating pier.

“If we don’t start managing retreat now, how much is it going to cost later?”

— Charles Lester, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Ocean and Coastal Policy Center

With the lack of funds preventing the city from bolstering seawalls, replenishing sand, or compensating property owners whose homes were damaged by the storm surges, Pacifica's best hope of securing outside finance was to demonstrate that it had considered all possibilities and devised an action plan.


Sea Walls, Protection At All Cost?

Our house is your castle, and it's the greatest investment most families will make in their lifetimes, so treat it as such. With that, our natural reaction is to protect it.

The seawall is the go-to strategy. Water-repelling seawalls may be as high as two stories high and constructed from anything from heaps of stones to gunite-coated cliffs to concrete slabs. However, these protections aren't cheap. The cost of a single-person house might reach $200,000. Tens of millions of dollars might be spent by taxpayers to build a mile-long wall. Repairs might be as expensive as building a new wall.

A new analysis by the Center for Climate Integrity estimates that defending the whole state may cost homeowners and taxpayers more than $22 billion over the next 20 years if the sea rises even a small amount.

On the other hand, each seawall also represents a decision to sacrifice the beach in front of it, whether that decision is consciously made or not. Natural replenishment of sand is disrupted by the obstacles, resulting in narrowing or complete disappearance of beaches. Seawall construction has been outlawed in a few states, including North Carolina and Maine. Other people have set considerable constraints on their freedom. Seawalls have been dubbed a "coastal disaster" by environmentalists in California. Because they are only meant to be temporary fixes during severe weather, the state's 1,200-mile-long Coastal Commission has previously given the green light to their use. Temporary, however, typically turns permanent. Southern California's coastline is now encased in seawalls, which encircle Navy bases and rail lines as well as ports and multi-million dollar houses.

As a result, more than 30 towns and counties have been left immobilized and unsure of what to do next. One thing for sure as to now, that there is no one-size-fits-all answer or set of guidelines to solve the posing threat to Cali's eroding shorelines.

“… we have never before dealt with the fact that Mother Nature’s going to do what she’s going to do, and we can’t do anything about it. ”

— Judy Taylor, California Assn. of Realtors


Choosing Casualties

A historic, century old seawall on one side of San Francisco holds the city's iconic skyscrapers in place. There is a parking area on the opposite side of the rock wall that blocks one of the city's few beaches. Something needs to be given up but even in a climate-aware city like San Francisco, sacrificing is not that easy.

Back then, the coastline was a muddy half-mile inland from what is today the commercial hub of the city. Settlements built new land on top of ancient coves and sunk ships by filling in these marshes throughout time, adding up to more than 500 acres of new land.

The Embarcadero sea wall, which doubles as a tourist attraction and is now teeming with tourists and schoolchildren, marketplaces, and museums, is holding back all the water. This bulwark is necessary to keep the sewage and water systems, utility lines, public transit, and communication cables from collapsing in the face of an oncoming tide. There's no denying that defenses like these  must hold and survive. This massive rock-and-concrete structure prevents the bay from flooding the financial district centers and the market street, protecting over $100 billion in assets and buildings.

However, the wall is beginning to fall apart and urgent repairs are required. During high tides, the boardwalk is often submerged. The historic Ferry Building in San Francisco might be flooded every day if sea levels continue to rise to a bare minimum of 3 more feet.

The cost of modernizing this seawall is expected to be at least $2 billion, if not much more. Scientists from the US Geological Survey have estimated that the cost of constructing levees, seawalls, and other measures to protect San Francisco Bay against a 6 and a half foot increase in sea level and a 100-year storm might cost $450 billion.

Having people care with this issue is not an overnight process. Until we the citizens started to move and make ourselves involved in the problem we long before predicted, Cali’s bays might stand a chance.


Race Against Nature

SOMETIMES PEOPLE CONSIDER THE BEACH TO BE A THING OR A PLACE THAT DOESN'T CHANGE. In reality a beach is more of a process than a place.

Sand moves from Malibu through Santa Monica to Manhattan Beach, until the ocean carries it away from the coast. Because it comes with the flow from mountain streams and canals and only stops for a short time at any one beach. Therefore, sand is constantly moving, replacing the other that has already moved. Any human interference in this river of sand might have unintended consequences. Sand dredging in San Francisco Bay may be to blame for the rapid erosion of Pacifica. Pacific Coast Highway construction has resulted in major sand losses on several Malibu beaches. As a result of damming up rivers and converting the L.A. River into a concrete conduit near Santa Monica, new sediment is no longer reaching the ocean.

More alterations were made in Los Angeles as a response to the natural changes. Adding sand to the beach at Santa Monica Bay dates back to the 1930s. To keep the sand in, we've built breakwaters, jetties, and other things like that. Thus, these famous beaches are between 150 and 500 feet wider than they would be on average.

It's almost as though beach communities like Del Mar, a little wealthy enclave north of San Diego, have proclaimed this to be their survival strategy.

Sand, even though it may seem endless, is not really free. It’s the most exploited and consumed natural resource in the world after fresh water . It's a fight for supremacy and claim that involves the federal government, states, communities, and private businesses throughout the country.

Furthermore, the addition of more of it cannot be considered permanent since sand is continually moving. The process of erosion is exactly the same.


Struggling To Retreat

Imperial Beach, located on the southernmost tip of California, seems to be on the verge of borrowed time.

Nearly one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. Every winter, the road is flooded by high tide. The beach in Tijuana is often closed due to sewage spills. Floodwaters were so high in the 1980s that those living below sea level had to use boats to get about.

Today, as a precaution, people are boarding up their windows in preparation for the storms to come. Officials fear that Imperial Beach might lose one-third of its population if nothing is done to protect the town's coastline, bays, and rivers. By 2100, hazard maps illustrate how many dwellings are at risk of flooding. Sand grains were too large for a beach nourishment project seven years ago. They will only last so long before they need to be replaced. Even if the community isn't ready to admit it, it seems likely that they will return to tackle this issue sooner or later. With the city barely able to scrap together a $20-million budget every year, Imperial Beach can’t afford more seawalls and more sand. The town doesn’t even have a park and a dedicated general store. 

However, there is neither political will nor financial resources to implement the solutions that the city and its experts have proposed.

“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?”

— Phil King, beach economist


Furthermore, the rising of sea levels is a pressing issue and people must be educated to understand it. Through awareness, the public might be able to involve themselves and in the process, help to find and create long term solutions that would benefit and even save Cali’s shorelines and beaches.










Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.