State regulators are urging local elected officials to brace for retreat as scientists continue to predict sea levels will rise in coming decades and pummel beachfront communities from San Diego to Arcata.
With the prospect of evermore harrowing storms and flooding brought on by climate change, officials say that cities and towns need to start planning as soon as possible to eventually abandon or relocate everything from highways to underground utilities to beachfront homes.
“The reality is seas are rising, eroding and inundating our coast and, in some places, that means homes and critical infrastructure will be lost,” said Jack Ainsworth, executive director for the California Coastal Commission.
“Just look at the apartment buildings leaning off the crumbling cliffs of Pacifica or the homes tumbling onto Gleason Beach,” he added. “These are windows into California’s future, and we must plan for that.”
This message hasn’t been well received in some coastal communities, where local leaders and landowners say they have no intention of sacrificing private property to the ocean.
Under ratcheting pressure from the Coastal Commission, Del Mar, for example, has agreed to pay lip service to the idea of retreat, mentioning it in a sea-level rise adaption plan required by the state.
However, local officials said they will try every other option — specifically, dumping massive amounts of sand on their beach — before even drafting a strategy to purchase and ultimately demolish homes and businesses hemmed in by the San Dieguito Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean.
“Managed retreat is not feasible for us,” said Del Mar Mayor Dwight Worden. “The best strategy is to build up a good wide beach. That’s feasible, and we can make it work up to 3 feet of sea level rise.”
Conservative estimates range from about one to four feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century. Although experts warn that it could be as much as eight feet, depending on how fast ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt.
Some cities, such as Imperial Beach, have taken a different tack, engaging in hard conversations about when and how to start retiring homes expected to be threatened by rising tides.
The South Bay city experimented with so-called beach nourishment in 2012 with mixed results. Now, officials say they’re looking at strategies for managed retreat, such as buying and renting out homes to recoup costs before flooding increases.
“Doing our economic impact study we identified many options for (addressing) sea level rise, and the most cost-effective thing we can do is managed retreat,” said Mayor Serge Dedina. “The more that we work with nature and not against it, the more successful we are.”
Dumping sand on shorelines can be costly and is expected to get even pricier as cities increasingly complete for the limited resource to save their beaches. Solana Beach and Encinitas, for example, plan to spend $165 million over the next 50 years to add sand to their shores.
Beach “nourishments” as they are called are also not guaranteed to work. Researchers at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography are still trying to get a handle on how and when to use the strategy.
Sand poured on the shores of Torrey Pines in 2001 washed away after just one storm. On the other hand, projects in Solana Beach and Cardiff in 2012 used a coarser grain sand and have proven somewhat resilient, even through El Niño-driven weather two years ago.
“We still have a lot to learn about how these beach nourishments behave,” said Scripps researcher Bonnie Ludka. “We’ve found that they can behavior drastically different. Beaches are really dynamic, and they change from year to year.”
Despite this uncertainty, Del Mar seems set on a strategy of beefing up its shoreline with sand, in part because buying opulent coastal homes would prove potentially more expensive, at least in the short term. Much of the northern part of Del Mar sits at very low elevation, meaning retreat could require the city purchase dozens, if not hundreds, of residences.
It would also meaning coming to terms with the possibility of losing some of the city’s most historic housing tracts. The notion has rattled many citizens, including longtime resident Kim Fletcher, whose home pushes right up against the shore.
“It scares everybody here,” said the 90-year-old. “Of course, I won’t be here, but I’ve got grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
Fletcher said he thinks the concerns about sea-level rise are overblown.
“I won’t be around to pay, but I’ll bet you a million dollars these houses will still be around in 100 years,” he said.
Another concern for residents has been the potential impact on property values if buyers find out that homes are slated to eventually be scooped up by the city using eminent domain. Laura DeMarco, who owns property in the area, said she wants the city to focus all its resources on maintaining the community in its current form.
“What they’re asking us to do is amputation,” she said. “Why should we plan to give up? Why should we plan to surrender? There are a lot of things that can be done that preserve our economic vitality and the culture of Del Mar.”
Many towns and cities along the coast will likely soon be having similar conversations as the Coastal Commission oversees the creation of dozens of plans to adapt to sea-level rise.
And the commission has leverage. If the state agency doesn’t approve a city’s final blueprint, the municipality could lose control over development decisions along its swath of shoreline.
Advocates are pushing for cities to embrace managed retreat in these blueprints in large part to avoid attempts by residents to put in controversial seawalls. Armoring the coast with walls, boulders or piles of rocks often referred to as riprap can protect shoreline property and infrastructure, but the strategy will also drown beaches under rising tides.
Roughly a third of Southern California beaches are armored, according to the Coastal Commission. That number’s about 10 percent for the state’s entire 1,100-mile shoreline.
Advocates argue that as seas rise the practice unfairly deprives the public access to the coast.
“The world that we live in is changing and we have people who own property in places where the ocean is going to flood,” said Jennifer Savage, California policy manager with the Surfrider Foundation. “There’s an option to gracefully retreat instead of putting in a wall and sacrificing the beach.”
While cities for the most part reserve the use of seawalls to protect large, expensive infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment plants, private property owners still fight vigorously, often in the courts, for the right to use such barriers.
“This is definitely going to be a growing issue of controversy and contention, but I don’t think the Coastal Commission is in a place to say no more seawalls,” said Rick Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the UC Davis School of Law. “The commission is going to have focus on the issues with a lot more scrutiny coming up because they’re so site specific.”
Advocates hope that if cities embrace a policy of managed retreat it could sidestep legal battles over seawalls. However, it doesn’t appear that most homeowners along the coast are going to embrace such a strategy without a fight.
--Joshua Emerson Smith is a writer for The San Diego Union Tribune