Beaches vs. Homeowners

 By Catharine Cooper.
By Catharine Cooper.

The effects of rising seawater conjure images of Bangladesh and Greece’s Kriti Islands – places destined to disappear by the end of the century under encroachment of the sea.  But what about here in Laguna?  What might a one-foot rise mean for our beaches? A three-foot rise?  At what point do preventative mechanisms to protect private property trump the public’s right to beach access?

Two current struggles provide a framework for conversation.  The first and closest to home is Broad Beach, in Malibu, where as much as 60’ of beach had been lost in the past decade.  As the sea continued to encroach into the front lawns of the “rich and famous”, they took matters into their own hands – first with a sand berm that caused a huge uproar – and finally with a 13’ high wall of jetty-like stones.

The net effect has been a temporary solution at best, and one that has rendered what used to be a well-loved beach, unusable.   The thin strip of sand in front of the revetment that is exposed during low tide is never dry enough to lay down a towel.

Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, in Pasadena, calls it “the Invisible Beach.”  The protection of a handful of property owners has eliminated access to the public.

On the other side of the country, in Nantucket, homeowners along Baxter Road, which fronts a steep cliff face called Sconset Bluff, are in a face-off that similarly pits the wealthy against the public.  A lingering nor’easter in March 2013 caused the surf to pound the unprotected bluffs for days. The resulting erosion chewed away at the foot of the slope, and one of the houses on the edge simply fell into the sea.

Remaining homeowners are desperate for a solution and have tried everything from a type of drain pipe buried under the sand to some burrito-shaped barriers of coir and jute. The drain system clogged and was abandoned; the burritos developed into individual islands as the sea simply swept over and around them.

At question are more than just property rights and beach access. The coastal bluff environment is integral to the health of the seas.  And while we can slow erosion by extreme measures, it rarely stops it.

Sarah Oktay, vice-chairman of the Nantucket Conservation Commission states,  “It’s a natural process… If you take beach bluffs or dunes and you cover them in rocks so it can’t go anywhere, then it no longer provides that feeder material to downdrift beaches, so you’ll lose the beach in front of those rocks and you’ll lose the beach downdrifts. It’s basically telling your neighbors, ‘Well, I want my home more than you want your beach.’”

Current estimations for southern California ocean rise range from one-foot by 2030 up to five-feet by 2010; that’s if climate change does not worsen. These rises will have a dramatic effect on areas where high tide currently laps at the bottom of beach stairs, as well as the breadth of Main Beach. “Guidelines for Shoreline Protection,” a study commissioned by the city in 1988, provides management guidelines for coastal sand resources.

The study is incorporated into the open space and conservation element of the general plan. It explores various types of berms for coastal conservation, analyzing the loss of beaches against the gain of slope protection.  Currently each request for bluff protection is analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

The city continues to place great emphasis on maintaining environmental values and assuring that the sand resource is not adversely affected, but for how long?  Can we become a Malibu or a Nantucket?

Let me know your thoughts –  [email protected]. Catharine Cooper is a life-long resident.


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