Surfrider report: California coastal management gets high marks, still needs work to face rising sea-level threats

2018-12-13 | Orange County Register

Dec. 13--California has done a better job managing its coastline than most of the other beach states in the country -- but needs to improve at planning for the future as sea-level rise threatens homes and infrastructure.

The "2018 State of the Beach Report Card" released Thursday by San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation gave California an "A" grade, while other areas prone to extreme weather and lacking policy to protect the coast earned lower ratings.

The report is in its second year and grades 30 U.S. states and Puerto Rico on policies to "protect the nation's beaches from coastal erosion, irresponsible beach fill, sea-level rise, and poorly planned coastal development."

Results from the report show that 23 out of 31 states are performing at adequate-to-poor levels.

About 40 percent of the nation lives along the country's coastlines and the ocean is an important revenue driver, contributing more than $352 billion each year to the economy, according to the report.

"However, beaches are disappearing at an alarming rate, due to both shifting natural processes and human intervention," the report reads.

Disappearing coast

Coastal erosion causes approximately $500 million in property loss annually in the U.S., including damage to structures and loss of land, according to the report.

The federal government spends about $150 million each year on beach replenishment and other ways to try and control shoreline erosion -- but with sea levels likely rising up to six feet by 2100, more needs to be done to address long-term impacts.

"You can't fight the ocean, you can't fight Mother Nature," said Surfrider Foundation's Coastal Preservation Manager Stefanie Sekich-Quinn. "We can do Band-aid approaches, but eventually we will be forced to make hard decisions."

Rising seas are also expected to contribute to the loss of coastal wetlands. Reduced by urbanization and development, more than 90 percent of the historic wetlands north and south of the Palos Verdes Peninsula have already disappeared, and the added threat of an encroaching ocean is putting pressure on delicate habitats.

"There is an immense risk to them," Sekich-Quinn said, adding that a 2018 study by U.S. Geological Survey indicated the entire West Coast could lose up to 80 percent of its wetlands with just 3 feet of sea level rise.

In some areas, like Capistrano Beach in Dana Point and Broad Beach in Malibu, the impacts of rising water levels are already apparent as officials and homeowners grapple with disappearing beaches.

Surfrider points to a 2017 report by the U.S. Geologic Survey that predicts more than 60 percent of Southern California beaches are likely to disappear within the next 80 years. The rising sea levels and chronic flooding by 2060 could threaten 30,000 homes valuing nearly $22 billion.

Armoring not a long-term solution

Armoring, or installing riprap boulders to protect against waves, is an increasingly common approach to threatened areas.

About a week ago, workers added 1,000 tons of rocks to Capo Beach where a wooden walkway and sea wall crumbled from an ocean battering during a medium-size swell.

Instead, Surfrider argues, planners should be looking at long-term strategies that include: wetland restoration, managed retreat, retrofitting infrastructure and incentives to property owners to avoid armoring.

Many temporary, emergency armoring projects end up staying in place long-term, causing even more damage as cliffs aren't allowed to naturally replenish beaches, the rocks acting like a buffer and causing even more damage over time.

At San Onofre State Beach, where a dirt road was nearly washed away during storms two years ago a temporary fix of 900 tons of rock remains as the state seeks an extension to keep the rocks in place.

Nearby, riprap armor is needed to support an eroding cliff below the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station where radioactive waste is being placed in containers, according to an application for the work submitted to the California Coastal Commission, which postponed the discussion planned for this week.

"We should be seeing a slowing down on administering emergency permits, and that's not the case," said Sekich-Quinn. "Some of those promises have been reneged on. These temporary sea walls become permanent. It exacerbates erosion."

At Broad Beach in Malibu, homeowners have been grappling with how to replenish their disappearing beach along about a mile stretch of coast.

"Those areas will continue to see erosion. Eventually, they will lose their beach," Sekich-Quinn said.

More needs to be done to examine "resilient relocation," another term for "managed retreat."

"This is the million-dollar question that urban planners and engineers are grappling with," she said. "We're facing these problems for the first time and it will only get worse."

One city taking a proactive approach is Imperial Beach in San Diego, where city leaders recently had a meeting dedicated to managed retreat to explore long-term maintenance.

Coastal watchers will be keeping their eyes on the beach in upcoming months.

With early signs of El Niño approaching -- which can stir up more frequent swells -- combined with sea-level increases and winter king tides, there could be problems heading our way.

"It's going to be problematic for the entire West Coast," she said.

Good news

On the other hand, California is ahead of the curve when compared to other states around the country -- thanks, in part, to the California Coastal Act passed in 1976, Sekich-Quinn said.

"It's widely recognized around the world," she said. "We owe a lot of our high marks and beautiful scenery to the Coastal Act."

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Areas prone to hurricanes need stronger policies and regulations to protect coastal resources and save taxpayers money when rebuilding, the report reads.

Many areas that are hit hard regularly by extreme weather lack solid coastal preservation and sea-level rise practices.

"Sea-level rise planning is an absolute must for all states," the report reads. "Now is the time for coastal states to proactively and strategically plan for sea-level rise to avoid the loss of beaches, homes, communities, public access, recreation and healthy ecosystems."

Florida was one of the lowest scoring areas, with a D grade in part because of hurricanes and extreme weather, but also because "Florida policies allow loopholes to avoid protective regulations."

"To make matters worse, the state is 'sticking its head in the sand' about climate change," forcing local municipalities to work alone on sea-level rise planning according to the report.

While California earned an "A" mark, the West Coast combined was given an average grade of "B."

Alaska scored poorly because the state shut down its coastal management program, and Oregon earned a B-, better than last year's C grade because of reduced preemptive seawall permits and fewer armoring projects.

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