Seawalls have been the most common response to coastal erosion in California over the last 50 years. And when they break, they are usually repaired. But organizations like the Surfrider Foundation say these little fixes are becoming a big problem in the face of sea level rise.
It’s an August afternoon in Pacific Grove. Isebel Ramis and Eulalia Duran are visiting for the first time from Barcelona, Spain. Wearing sweaters and sandals, they’re getting ready to walk along the city’s recreation trail. It’s along Pacific Grove’s coastal bluff and overlooks the emerald green Pacific Ocean.
“Beautiful. We found beautiful,” says Ramis.
Even on this weekday afternoon, this dirt trail near Lover’s Point is crowded with families, joggers and tourists. A seawall built of rock and mortar protects it from the crashing waves. But in January, the waves were too much for the wall. A storm tore out a large chunk, leaving a gap.
Pacific Grove City Manager Ben Harvey says, “It’s just like a tooth that was removed from the smile.”
He points over a temporary barricade that’s in front of gap. You can see the piece that fell out of the wall. It’s resting below in the water.
“This is a seawall that was built over 80 years ago. This was all done by hand. These rocks were largely hand hewn to fit in this structure in this formation,” says Harvey.
He says fixing the damage is necessary to keep protecting one of the city’s biggest assets.
“We have the trail here, which could fall right into the ocean too. And that would be eliminating that access. That access that we have here, which is right on the edge of the water,” Harvey says.
The California Coastal Commission approved the repair. Surfrider Foundation says that’s becoming a slippery slope. The nonprofit works to protect the ocean and beaches.
“You have all of these little, sort of patches. Like patch jobs that don’t maybe seem like a big deal if they were an isolated event. But when you combine what is happening, we’ve got about 110 miles of the coastline armored at this point,” says Jennifer Savage. She’s the California Policy Manager for the Surfrider Foundation.
That’s about 10 percent of California’s coastline. So the Surfrider Foundation started tracking the number of emergency seawall repair permits the Coastal Commission has granted. They found 93 in the last ten years. Savage says emergency repairs mean alternatives to hard armoring are not explored. She calls it the “do now, plan later” culture.
“I think we need to start thinking about it now. Everything we hear about sea level rise and the effects of climate change are only getting worse the more we know,” says Savage.
UC Santa Cruz Professor Dr. Gary Griggs recently helped update the state’s guidelines on how to deal with sea level rise. The report is called “Rising Seas in California: An Update on Sea-Level Rise Science.” A key finding is that California is already experiencing early impacts, like more frequent coastal flooding and increased coastal erosion.
“We’re going to have to face, sooner or later, the idea that much of California’s development is going to be exposed to higher tides, larger waves, higher water levels,” says Griggs.
I meet him about an hour north of Pacific Grove at Lighthouse Point Park in Santa Cruz. There’s a similar oceanfront trail that we walk along. It’s also protected by a seawall. This one is called riprap, meaning rocks stacked on the beach. Dr. Griggs says no matter how they’re constructed, all seawalls have a lifespan.
“They’re all going to break down eventually. I mean maybe they’ll last a century, that’s great. But ultimately the water level is going to get above that,” says Dr. Griggs.
He also says it’s time to start planning for something other than seawalls.
“Call it a number of different things, managed retreat, planned retreat, stepping back gracefully, but that’s not something people do gracefully. If that’s your house, it’s your family house, you want to pass it onto your kids. If it’s your boardwalk or your hotel. So we have some really tough decisions ahead of us,” Dr. Griggs says.
There are only a few examples of managed retreat so far in California. One is in Ventura, at Surfer’s Point. Some parking spots and a bike trail were moved back. But more and more cities are considering managed retreat, including Pacific Grove.
While the Coastal Commission did approve a permit to repair their seawall, it came with a condition. Come up with a shoreline management plan that addresses sea level rise. City Manager Ben Harvey says they already planned to do that.
“For those people out there that are wondering if sea level rise is real, I can’t think of any other indicator more real than us having to put together a Shoreline Management Plan because we’re experiencing it. We’re seeing it. We know we’re going to have more of it. We have to do something about it,” says Harvey.
For the plan, the shoreline will be categorized into different sections with various recommendations. Those recommendations will range from hard armoring in some places to managed retreat in others. Pacific Grove Mayor Bill Kampe says planning for sea level rise is not easy.
“For some spots, 50 years from now, houses may be lost. And planning for that is very, very difficult. Because nobody wants to volunteer and say okay, let the ocean take my property. Even if it may be well beyond their expected lifetime,” says Kampe.
The Coastal Commission has given the city three years to complete the plan.