The problem is, we all love the beach! We want to play on the sand, live close enough to walk to the beach, swim in the ocean, listen to the waves as we sleep, etc. Unfortunately, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t build so close to a changing shoreline that we disrupt the natural shoreline processes, including the shifts in sand supply and natural movement of the coastline, without negative consequences. If you love something beautiful and natural, you can’t confine it. Just as the movement of a beautiful dancer would be destroyed by shackles, the majesty of an open, sandy beach can be killed by hard shoreline armoring, such as seawalls.
Seawalls are merely a short-term fix in the face of rising seas and not a sustainable solution to the changing shoreline. Seawalls are expensive, can intensify wave activity and block beaches from getting new sand. Potential impacts associated with seawalls and other hard armoring have concerned coastal advocates for decades. Expert geologists warn us that dry beach width is consistently and significantly more narrow where a wall or hardened structure exists. Because sandy beaches are being enveloped with water from the seaward side, while also being deprived of sand from the landward side, ultimately seawalls force the shoreline to migrate inland, reducing the width of the beach in front of the seawall and eventually leading to total destruction of the beach. Sea level rise exacerbates this process.
Seawalls beget seawalls. Neighboring properties to those with seawalls will be adversely affected, if they do not armor as well, from the combination of the hardened structure and appetite of the waves for a place to fill and crash. The energy and volume of the ocean will simply go around one hardened structure with more force and strength against the neighboring shoreline properties.
This means that a beachgoer or surfer may suddenly find that it is necessary to climb over rip-rap or that a previous stairway access has been obstructed. Additionally, seawalls are ugly and detract from simple pleasures, like a walk on the beach. At a broader systems level, there is also a dearth of natural sand supply sources due to the prevalence of dams that starve river mouths, compounding the effects of shoreline armoring that halts the natural migration of sand, resulting in disappearing beaches. This constriction of public beach areas is a loss for every citizen, coastal resident and visitor to the shore.
We need to be able to live and play on our coastlines. Using seawalls as a static form of response simply will not work as a solution to a changing coastline and sea level. So given our love of the coast, what are we going to do to preserve it?
Californians need sound coastal management to determine how the coastline can most appropriately adapt to changing sea levels. The California Coastal Commission is the state agency that is charged with oversight and protection of the coast. Their seawall authority is on trial right now with the Lynch v. California Coastal Commission case, which was heard in early May at the California Supreme Court (and a decision is expected any day now). The Coastal Act ensures that beaches are a public resource held for the greater good, not to serve the few private beachfront owners. The commission is the key stewardship agency regarding the long-term future of the coast and how best to manage it.
Over one-third of the Southern California coast is already armored. If this trend continues to shrink our public beach resources, the same will happen to the state’s $445 billion coastal economy. So how will the Coastal Act’s mandate to “maximize public access” to the beach be enforced? For a single beachfront property owner? Or for the thousands upon thousands of beachgoers who travel to the coast to celebrate the 4th of July? Will we allow limited private property concerns to take from the future generations of Americans their right to visit the storied California coastline? In a country that recognizes the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, the answer is clear — and it doesn’t look like a seawall.
Angela T. Howe is legal director at the Surfrider Foundation which is based in San Clemente.
(Op-ed from the Orange County Register)