How Beaches Work: Solutions

After looking at problems along California's coastline, is there any way out of the mess? We asked seven people who work with coastal issues to share their thoughts.

Bob Battalio, Civil Engineer,
Coastal and Aquatic System Restoration Emphasis

Bob Battalio is a Civil Engineer with Philip Williams & Associates, Ltd. (PWA), who has been involved in many coastal projects along California's coast. He has lived in Pacifica with his family for more than 15 years, and in his free time, he likes to surf the giant waves at Maverick's.

"I think the public is going to have to decide, very soon, whether we want seawalls or beaches. I think seawalls have their place, but I think their place is more limited than what you now see on California's coast. Decisions are now being made by what I call 'crisis management.' It's really sad during a storm event when you have coastal damage and people are extremely frightened and they are faced with the loss of their property. In a situation like that, people feel they need to do something immediately, so homeowners are given an emergency seawall permit, they slap together a couple of drawings, a few calculations and a seawall is quickly put up without the real costs factored in -- such as the effect on the environment and the effect on the public's beach. And once a shoreline device is put in it can result in significant changes to the public beach or shore and ultimately, over the long term, can affect the surf zone and the entire environment in that vicinity. So it's not just a problem for the people who live on the coast, it's a problem for everybody in the region and one that everyone should weigh in on.

It is important to understand that much of the California coast is eroding and has been long before anyone built a house on a bluff. People that develop close to the shore are taking a risk. With sea levels rising and possibly other factors, most of us expect that the shore will continue to erode for the foreseeable future. From the perspective of the natural system, erosion is not a bad thing, and a receding shore maintains the ecosystem for the organisms that have evolved to thrive in it.

I'd like to see society come together and try to find a way to manage the shoreline more effectively. We need to have community planning, not crisis management. I'd like to see us think forward long term and find a better path, and I think that path involves helping property owners and municipalities with erosion problems in a way that is not limited to funding seawall construction. One approach is sand replenishment, so that there are wider beaches to absorb wave energy. Another approach, which is more controversial, but perhaps more effective, is to actually remove infrastructure and development over time, using a concept called managed retreat. I think that approach has a lot of merit. If you really look at the economics and quantify the public and environmental benefits of having a natural beach and dune or bluff system, I think, over the long term, it's the most cost effective approach. I think the general public wants beaches and a natural environment. That's why a lot of us live in California."

A few specific recommendations: First, the State of California should put resources toward helping cities and counties with shoreline management. One mechanism would be to update Local Coastal Plans based on scientific evaluations of future shore erosion. Coastal Erosion Hazard Zones could then be identified where future development would be limited. Other shoreline management actions could also be adopted, including clear policies on shore protection structures. Second, the engineering/scientific community needs to develop a consensus view on the effects of shore armoring and sand placement. This will also require funding and leadership. Third, environmental reviews of shore armoring projects need to clearly articulate the best estimate of future shore conditions with and without shore protection devices. A time frame of at least 50 years is required. Shore protection devices should not be approved without adequate mitigation for all expected adverse effects. In some cases, the likely effects cannot be mitigated. Therefore, fourth, new ways of dealing with property loses due to future shoreline erosion are needed.

James Burling, Principal Attorney
James Burling is a Principal Attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nation-wide non-profit legal foundation that advocates private property rights.

"If people want to go to the coast for a good, enjoyable time, we certainly do not need to turn it into Waikiki Beach. But what we are suggesting is that the extraordinary, extreme difficulty of constructing new housing and new hotel rooms on the beach should be eased, so it's not a question of no more building any time, anywhere. Let's work with the developers to try and develop new housing, new tourist accommodations that make sense for everybody.

I think what we need right now is to give a lot more of the control that the Coastal Commission has traditionally been exercising back to local communities. At the same time, making it very clear to local communities that they have to pay attention to the rights of the landowners along the coast.

All government agencies involved in regulating the coast should view private property as an asset rather than an impediment. Land owners are often the best stewards of their own properties. And with the right encouragement, as opposed to coercion, they are vital partners in the preservation of coastal values. While engaging in the permit process, for example, land owners can be given incentives, such as tax incentives or density bonuses to encourage them to maintain the ecological integrity of their property. This carrot approach works better than using a stick approach where you deny permits or impose unreasonable mitigation requirements.

Land owners have a fundamental right to exclude strangers from their property; whereas government needs to provide incentives to land owners to provide access such as just compensation or tax benefits. A cooperative approach would work far better than endless litigation."

Chad Nelsen, Environmentalist
Chad Nelsen is the former Environmental Director for the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protecting the world's ocean waves and beaches.

"We think that, in a large part, right now we're losing the war to preserve our beaches in California. One of the reasons we have a problem in California is that there's a loophole in the Coastal Act that allows people to build seawalls for existing structures. We and others contend that this was intended when the act was passed in the mid-70s to mean anything existing prior to the Coastal Act, but it's often interpreted to mean anything that's existing even now. So you'll have a homeowner that will build close to the coast, claiming that they don't need a seawall. However, three or four years later, they're back in front of the Commission, saying their geology was wrong and they need a seawall and they'll be granted one. So this loophole really provides an out for homeowners and allows for bad planning. Should we grandfather in houses built before the Coastal Act? Sure. Should we allow houses subsequent to that to get seawalls? We don't think so.

Ideally, putting as much of the coastal lands in public trust as we can is really one of the best long-term solutions for the beach because then they'll be managed for the benefit of the public. We also think managed retreat is a smart policy. The solution in some of these beach erosion issues is really good planning. We need to start bringing more foresight into the equation. In places where we can, we need to set back far enough from the coast so that we can let erosion occur naturally. And I think we need to take a really good, hard look at the coastline that is heavily developed and start considering options for managed retreat. In the long term, it's really the only thing we can do, otherwise we are going to lose our beaches.

Beaches, surfing and the coastal lifestyle are things that people really care strongly about. So we're hopeful that by getting the word out, working with people and educating them, we can turn things around and really make a positive difference for the coast."

Walter F. Crampton, Principal Engineer
Walter works as a coastal engineer in San Diego at the Terracosta Consulting Group, Inc., a firm specializing in helping property owners find solutions to coastal erosion problems. He studied under Dr. Douglas Inman at Scripps Institution in San Diego.

"The controversy regarding seawalls is not as simple as one might expect. One is often left with the impression that beach loss is somehow associated with the presence of seawalls and that the elimination of seawalls will return the beach to its "natural" condition. It is important to realize that beaches along the California coastline did not disappear because seawalls were built. The opposite is true. Seawalls were needed because the beaches disappeared. The economic value of this state's beaches is undisputed, particularly in urban areas. However, it is vitally important to understand man's effect on natural processes.

One must realize that the impact of 80 percent of California's population living within 30 miles of the ocean has been to effectively sever the sediment supply to the state's beaches. These conflicting societal interests, presumably for the benefit of the citizens of California, have proven to be to the detriment of California's coastal resources. The issue becomes much more complicated when one realizes that if we were to remove all of the seawalls along the California coast, the sand beaches would not return. While seawalls do not protect beaches, they are necessary to protect private improvements now threatened by the absence of sand beaches. Seawalls also protect the beach-going public from coastal bluff collapses that occasionally occur and injure the public.

The fundamental problem, at least along much of Southern California's cliffed shoreline, is that today, in the almost total absence of sand now exposing the underlying bedrock sea floor, California's sea cliffs are then exposed to significantly more coastal erosion. Seawalls in essence represent a property owner's attempt at fixing a more pervasive societal problem that has deprived the beach of its historic source of sediment, and absent any future beach nourishment, as sea level slowly rises, the sandy beaches fronting the seawall are eventually lost.

As a society, we must all come to grips with the real hazards and impacts affecting our coastal resource. Only then can we work together to improve the quality of this resource. The coastline along much of Southern California is totally developed, and this must be considered in future coastal land-use policies. As a society, we are primarily responsible for the loss of this resource, and we must consider renourishing these coastal areas that would clearly benefit from this effort.

Drs. Cheryl Hapke, Bruce Richmond and Curt Storlazzi, Geologists
Drs. Hapke, Richmond and Storlazzi work for the US Geological Survey as part of the Coastal and Marine Geology Team at the Pacific Science Center in Santa Cruz, CA

"The causes for coastal erosion and beach loss in California are numerous. Prior to the initiation of any remediation or protection effort it is important to understand the rate and causes of coastal change. The first and foremost question that must be answered is whether the coast is actually undergoing long-term erosion. This is not as straight-forward as it may sound, as there seems to be a misconception that beaches are eroding everywhere and the problem is chronic. However, there is no widespread scientific data showing that the long-term trend along California's beaches is erosional. This is partly due to the lack of systematic studies, but the misconception most certainly stems from the enormous seasonal change in beach width along our shores. Along the west coast, beaches are typically wide and "healthy" during the late spring through early fall. When we experience the first late fall storms, sand is moved offshore. This continues to occur throughout the winter and by early spring the shoreline on sandy beaches may have receded 40 or 50 feet or more! For people living along the coast, this can be dramatic and convince them that their property is being permanently threatened. However, most of this sand is stored offshore and is gradually re-deposited on the beach when the winter storms are over. For example, after severe beach erosion during the 1997-98 El Nino most beaches, at least in the Monterey Bay area, recovered completely within 6 months.

A scientific analysis documenting long term and not just seasonal trends is needed to develop a solution to coastal erosion. Solutions typically available include: do nothing, retreat from the coast, engineering applications, and beach nourishment (or some combination of the above). Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, engineering solutions such as seawalls and revetments are designed to protect the loss of coastal land and can be quite effective at stopping seacliff erosion, however, they typically are not designed to protect the adjacent beach and sometime the design itself (rock revetments, often at a 2:1 slope) causes loss of the fronting beach by covering it completely.

Also, seeing that coastal cliff erosion supplies some percentage of beach-sized sediment to the beach through sea cliff erosion, the use of seawalls or revetments to stop seacliff erosion may reduce the supply of sediment to the beach, causing the fronting beach and the beaches downcoast of the seawall or revetment to narrow.

Beach nourishment is seen as a viable option in some parts of the U.S., as it replaces lost beach material with sediment from another source, either from offshore underwater or land-based sources. Beach nourishment projects have been quite "successful" at a number of locations off the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts, with "success" being defined as the expensive nourishment project lasting a long time in its emplaced position. Beach nourishment projects that have lasted a long time and thus have a low cost to project life have typically been attempted along the lower-energy East Coast or very-low energy Gulf Coast where the potential for the nourished material to stay in place is high.

The large waves and strong storms off the coast of California, however, cause very large sand transport rates that can potentially quickly disperse nourished beach sediment, thus increasing the ratio of project cost to project life. A multi-million dollar project in southern Orange County, for example, lasted less than two years on the beach, resulting in a very high project cost relative to the project's life. Thus, when determining if beach nourishment is a viable option, one must not only figure the cost of getting the proper (grain size, color, lack of contaminants) sediment emplaced on the beach, but one also must consider the energetics (wave height, wave period, wind speed, wind direction) of the environment to determine if the beach nourishment project would have a long enough project life to outweigh the project costs."