Time & Tide Waits on No One: Beach Erosion Print E-mail

20210113(San Diego Reader January 13, 2021)

The Sand at Encinitas

Jayme Timberlake—tide-watcher, restoration ecologist, avid surfer—light-foots it down Encinitas’s iconic Stone Steps. She’s barefoot, kicking off her shoes and leaving them on the sand-dusted floor of her truck cab. Desk-chained me follows, white legs and black tennies. We gaze up at the sentinel sandstone cliff-backs beside us and their telltale, sharp-edged furrows or rills of erosion. The sight feels perilous: 100-foot escarpments, topped by private homes, the occasional railroad-tie buttress, and a rare American flag—as if signaling to offshore pirates their onshore enemy.

Timberlake is the Coastal Zone Program Administrator for the City of Encinitas. She is helping facilitate the town’s 50-50 share of a 50-year, $167 million Army Corps of Engineers sand replenishment project (laid out in “Corps-speak,” a biblical narrative of 2,670 pages) that will cover a two-mile length and 50-foot wide shore. Solana Beach will get the other share of sand on a 1.7-mile length and a 150-foot wide beach. The Corps’ super-spreader plan affects beaches that lie below dozens of homes and condo units. Its half-century time frame runs to a couple generations (geologically a wink) because sand regularly shifts and washes away, the strike force, winter storms and sea-level rise.

Timberlake says that in recent decades the shift in beach restoration has changed from “recreational benefits” to “coastal protection with sand.” What needs protecting? The beach and the bluff. Both things make the coast and the coast, with all due haste, is being ravaged. A California catastrophe, to be sure. The East Coast’s beaches and estuaries are inundated by higher tides and more frequent floods. Think of Hurricane Sandy surging into lower Manhattan. Out west, the coastline is wilder, the waves bigger, the geography less uniform, and the shoreline more susceptible to trapped sediment and cliff erosion.

Earlier on our tour, Timberlake shows me such entrapment—a sand bar, stippled with gulls, in Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda lagoon at low tide. Here the sediment is stuck; its once-natural flow is blocked by Pacific Coast Highway and the Carlsbad State Beach, with only one narrow outlet. By design, the lagoon exists to supply water to the Cabrillo Power desalination plant, the county’s notorious lone coastal chimney.

Timberlake says it’s typical of the coastline’s estuaries to pile up and haplessly disperse the sediment flow. Ninety percent of sediment from inland sources has been damned by reservoirs on every county river. The trickle that gets through still bunches up at the coast. Another factor, she says, is that the Pacific “hammers the coast with high-wave energy from south and northwest swells in winter” and, as a result, sand is displaced like Oklahomans in the Dust Bowl.

Wave-action circulates sand in the longshore drift or littoral transport along the coast. Much of it drops into submarine canyons where it’s also trapped. A century ago, the free flow of sand created and nourished the beaches, au naturel. But now, with all this turgidity and turbulence, what Timberlake archly calls “sediment management,” many Southern California beaches have lost the ability to “manage” themselves.

At Stone Steps, up top and below, we espy Beacon’s Beach to the north and Moonlight and Swami’s Beach to the south. Along here is the 7200-foot stretch the Army Corps will replenish. Timberlake asks if I recall the 1980s when Encinitas and Leucadia beaches had been stripped down to cobble by a few very wet Los Niños. I do. Major sand dumps were required to right the beach. Today, she and I are looking at “lots of compacted sand,” which the sea is steadily reclaiming, a low-tide wide beach with decent space for some spread-out sun-lovers. The beach looks plenty “plenished.” The lave ebbs and flows near inaudibly, leaving that bright evaporating sheen of water/sand equilibrium.

Almost all beachgoers know what cliff-back erosion looks like. A heavy rain slashes the bluffs; the resultant rills resemble the facades of gothic cathedrals. Groundwater moving under coastal sandstone leeches out and pyramids below bluffs hourglass shapes called “drip castles.” Timberlake says that when erosion gets “really dramatic,” the state places a concrete “notch-fill” to staunch the “toe of the slope,” a menacing crack, some running top to bottom. Storms push the tide high enough to further gouge the cliff base, sculpting caves and inlets, craggy coves and fog-trapping inlets.

What we’re scanning up and down the Encinitas shoreline has been chosen, Timberlake says, by the Corps’ intervention “because it’s so natural.” It’s an odd statement but, thought through, makes sense. The natural state of the cliffs is their vulnerability, their raw exposure to drawn-out or elemental changes. As sedimentary structures, the cliffs are ephemeral; they can only be monitored, on life support as it were. They can’t be repaired. What’s more, bringing in new sand for lost sand is also an unnatural process, like an IV to a dying patient. But there’s no other option if we want beaches.

On the Blufftops

The Army Corps says that its multi-agency, 20-years-in-the making sand project will “reduce coastal storm damage,” on beaches inundated by a rising sea and its tides. The study states that storm surges “carve notches into the bluffs,” which are “then prone to episodic collapse. Consequently, public facilities and residential properties on the upper bluff experience land loss and damages to property.” These “bluff failures represent a significant safety issue for those recreating.”

On August 2, 2019, a 30-foot-wide chunk of sandstone came loose at Grandview Surf Beach in Encinitas, beneath a condo development, falling onto a family of three women, two local residents, whose children and spouses sat nearby. The three women died. A lawsuit filed by the surviving families calls the poorly maintained bluff “an unnatural, unstable, and unsafe urbanized cliff.” The defendants are the state of California, the city of Encinitas, and the Leucadia-Seabluff Village Community Association, a 255-condo complex. The plaintiffs allege that “this was not a random act of nature.” “Manmade changes” are the main culprits; one in particular is the “growth and proliferation of invasive, nonnative, heavy, water-laden ice plants,” which destabilize cliffs.

According to California law, the state and coastal cities are immune from “all liability” because when the government insures “open access to beaches,” users must “assume the risk of injury.” In other words, you’re liable if you picnic at the base of a cliff; a few signs at access points states the warning as do the absence of lifeguards. Since all agree that “bluff erosion leads to bluff failures,” implicitly, the Grandview case hinges on the degree to which the condo development “exacerbated” that failure.

The Corps says that the Encinitas sand replenishment will not stop these sudden falls but will slow erosion around “property and infrastructure.” If the Corps seeks to make such spots less dangerous, the cost would far exceed the $167 million. Stabilizing San Diego’s cliffs would cost hundreds of million dollars more. Sand nourishment will “reduce coastal erosion,” the Corps argues, with reduce the operative word. It seems obvious—inarguable, in fact—that beach sand cannot buttress failing cliffs.

At the sea’s edge or on a bluff on our shoreline, there are hundreds of private homes and condo warrens, part of a tangle of public and private ownership whose cliff maintenance varies. In Solana Beach, bluffs are public; in Encinitas, it’s a patchwork. Who’s liable can shift from plot to plot, be grandfathered in for new owners or a city and, thus, like Grandview, become litigiously draining. One measure of beach title is the mean high-tide line. This line, regulated by the state land commission, is computed according to a 19-year Metonic cycle, a tidal pattern that follows the lunar calendar. The spot where the water ends at its averaged highest slosh belongs to public.

Among nail-biting homeowners on Neptune Avenue in Encinitas is Diane Korsh who has lived for 20 years in a remodeled residence whose backyard towers over the Pacific. With cliff-dwellers and beachcombers alike, she is active in the Seacoast Preservation Association, its executive director. The association seeks to loosen up the powerfully protective permitting process of the California Coastal Commission and its strictures on building “shoreline protective devices.” Adding more such devices, the group wants to fortify the bluffs with the goal, Korsh says, “to protect human life.”

Her home and bluff, she tells me by phone, are “in very good shape,” having weathered decades of mild ocean assaults. “It happens to have a seawall that the city of Encinitas allowed the previous owner to extend.” Despite this, she sees on her daily beach walks more damage in the last 20 years as “tides hit the bluff-line”; the erosion, she says, is “significant.”

“The way to protect” coastal beaches, she continues, “is sand replenishment. It’ll take care of the immediate problem,” the next 50 years of beach displacement. And yet like everyone I spoke to, she is frustrated that the Corps’ replenishment won’t begin for four years—and only then in five- and ten-year cycles. She blames a couple bogeymen: sand migrating away from Encinitas and collecting south of Swami’s and bureaucratic hurdles to replace outdated and crumbling cliff-face buttresses, whether plants or planks.

What worries her, she says, “is that there’s more political consciousness for the ocean itself versus [the needs of] the properties.” She says one outcome that environmentalists seem to prefer is to let “nature do what it wants to do—and if the bluffs fall down, they fall down,” and her plot with it. The idea annoys her. “We [homeowners] were already here,” she says, long before the sea began reclaiming the land and before the Coastal Commission’s burdensome regulations.

To “shore up the bluff, we cannot do anything without a coastal permit,” Korsh says. Cliff-face safeguards require approval: “We want [approval] expedited; we want to find a way that it doesn’t cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Outside looking in, it seems the chief reason for the blufftop home’s existence is to be saved.

One way to unstiffen homeowners’ objections is to amend the Coastal Act of 1976. The legislative bill, SB 1090, would fast-track permits to homeowners and communities to install “drainage systems, retaining walls, seawalls and erosion resistant landscaping to help prevent future fatalities on public beaches.” In exchange for such accommodation, cities and homeowners would pay costs if a “shoreline protective device” results in a net loss of sand. The bill hasn’t moved an iota during the pandemic.

Owners typically keep remodels under a 50 percent capacity; otherwise, they must obtain new permits that involve Coastal Commission-negotiated trade-offs. If you do a big remodel, you may be endangering the publicly-owned land on which your home is propped. Curiously, SB 1090 acknowledges that sand barriers bring about as much coastal erosion as they retard. Thus, Solana Beach cliff-dwellers who want new regulations are admitting that seawalls, even during the coming 50 years, are only temporary solutions.

Some beach preservation groups have paid geo-engineering firms and their lobbyists for erosion studies, including one study by Group Delta Consultants. This firm estimated that at Stone Steps, “the long-term marine erosion as well as the subaerial erosion of the bluffs is estimated to range from 0.0303 to 0.0365 meter per year.” By 2100, a midrange of those two measurements averages out between 85 and 96 inches. In other words, the bluff-loss, like geologic skin peals, will be seven to eight feet landward, from top to bottom, in 80 years.

The Sand at Solana Beach

A few miles south of Encinitas is the other half of the Army Corps’ tomorrow-land adventure—a 1.7-mile stretch of shore north and south of Solana Beach’s Fletcher Cove. On this walkabout, I’m escorted by Jim Jaffee. A townie, Jaffee is an electrical engineer, self-educated coastal preservationist, and a “never compensated” advocate with the Surfrider Foundation.

In the 1990s, Jaffee, who carries his stocky self with the wave-taming defiance of an older surfer, took to beach culture after he and a few friends realized they were heading down “the wrong way in life.” The beach “saved us,” he says. He is “paying it forward” as an activist, calling shoreline preservation a “social-justice issue.” Early on, he believed “science would win.” It hasn’t, he says, stopping at the southern end of Cardiff State Beach and the popular surf spot, Table Tops.

Table Tops is sacred space for surfers. High tides over the reefs cause waves to trip, Jaffee says. “When they break here, they break with a bigger force.” The long wave lines produce small but stable swells, beginner fare. “We have only a few beach breaks on our coastline; we need to preserve these.”

Though Jaffee likes the idea of more sand, he says the Corps’ sand dump is politically tainted and geologically unsound. Nothing, he tells me, will buttress these Torrey Sandstone cliffs from eventual home-foundering collapse. Parts of this stretch of Solana Beach (below Pacific Avenue) is armored by 15- to 35-foot tall slabs, seawalls sprayed with gunite (concrete shot from a gun). They remind Jaffee of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland, with its sand-like façade, a kind of fake news of cliff reinforcement.

The slabs look impressive but, long-term, they’re useless, he says. Many only a few decades old are liberally cracked, blistered by sun, and battered by annual King Tides. The armored coast here, with a mere five-foot ocean rise, will change what is now a fairly habitable beach into “a swimming pool”: During winter months, the surge will pummel the seawalls and rebound with the same ferocity and force with which they strike.

Both the beach and good surf can disappear because of this brutal ping-ponging wave-action that any coastal revetment creates. New sand, so goes the Corps’ plan, must slope, ramp-like, up the beach to absorb some of the wave-energy and to lessen the ricochet effect. “Nobody will be on the beach,” my guide says, “because they’ll be no beach.”

I ask Jaffee what the blufftop looked like 40 years ago. There was zero yuppification, he says, which many of the Solana Beach McMansions these days have reversed. It used to be funky like Leucadia still is with bungalows and cliff-edge home distancing. Today’s inventively compact renovations—the lots are as tight as high-school lockers—receive modest code-set exemptions, though homeowners have brought suits for excessive fees.

As we walk the wave line, we pause at numerous spots and discuss “drip castles,” old half-disintegrated cement-bag walls, and a few diamond signs, “Falling Rock.” This summer, when Solana Beach and other local beaches were overrun (one of few kid-friendly spots open during the pandemic and the torrid September-October heat), Jaffee told sunbathers “sheltering” near the bluff bottoms to move forward: Unstable Cliffs Above!

Between Table Tops and Fletcher Cove, Jaffee points out many “concrete notch infills,” V-shaped incisions of severe cliff-base erosion. The physics is interesting. The Army Corps calls the wave-action pummeling the coast sideways, “flanking.” The wave energy is deflected laterally and, as a result, grate the edges of the wall. (It’s one source of the organic sculpting at Sunset Cliffs, for instance.) Crosswise wave action finds its way behind barriers, weakening them further. The Corps’ study warns, “The existing notching at the base of the bluff, when combined with the already over-steepened upper bluff, is indicative of future and potentially catastrophic block failures.” Another Grandview disaster in the making.

We mosey farther, and Jaffee ticks off a litany of dunderheaded schemes and short-term fixes, none of which, he says, work other than as temporary stays against calamity, many painfully expensive:

• cliff-tightening vegetation, the worst, the ice plant;
• straw erosion wattles or mesh fabrics like those terraced on Interstate road cuts;
• deep-sunk vertical pillars propping up home foundations;
• drainage systems, riprap at a cliff’s base, or groins in the surf;
• horizontal beams called “soil nails” driven in mid-cliff like floor joists;
• polyurethane foam geogrids that fill holes or notches but which sandstone-saturated rains easily skirt;
• seawall armoring.

Claims of permanent solutions are as unreliable as proofs of reincarnation. Time and tide wait on no man. When the storms surge and the cliffs erode, the environment is speaking with one voice, sic transit gloria mundi.

In the end, Jaffee criticizes dumping sand every five, ten, or 50 years as an unwise “infinite resource.” He wonders, “Is that even possible?” He says that “putting nature back as it was,” perhaps to the thatched-roof era, the longboards and the woodies, “seems reasonable. But to consider sand as a panacea. Is that even sustainable?”

After an initial 2024 san nourishment of 700,000 cubic yards in Encinitas and 340,000 cubic yards in Solana Beach, the Corps will dredge and dump 290,000 yards of sand every 10 years in Encinitas and 220,000 yards every five years in Solana Beach. This is far below the transport rate, Jaffee says, which is the near-shore traversal of sand via ocean tides. He estimates the sand flowing by at two million cubic yards annually. Again, this may mean the Corps’ fix is a finger in the dyke: The Corps would need to deposit three-and-a-half times more sand per year at both locations just to keep up. Call it throwing good sediment after bad.

To Jaffee, there’s something statistically and morally wrong when oceanfront houses and their owners, maybe a thousand or so occupants in the county (some sites are “vacation homes” and typically unoccupied), have more political clout than the tens of thousands of beachcombers who live nearby, his emphasis on the “public” in “public access.”

Science Sings Its Dire Warnings

The predicted incremental range for sea-level rise in the county by 2100 is between five inches per decade, roughly 3 feet, and 1.2 feet per decade, nearly 10 feet. These estimates do not include storm surges, frosting on the disaster-cake. In 80 years, hollowed-out cliff bases, beach-stripping backwash, and a 10-foot-high inundation of saltwater would all combine to damage, perhaps ruin, our present-day coastline.

In 2018, the California Coastal Commission Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance offered a fairly grievous assessment, worthy of the following long quote as it catalogs the multiplicity of the problem:

“According to these reports, sea level rise will cause flooding and inundation, increased coastal erosion, changes in sediment supply and movement, and saltwater intrusion to varying degrees along the California coast. These effects in turn could have a significant impact on the coastal economy and could put important coastal resources and coastal development at risk, including ports, marine terminals, commercial fishing infrastructure, public access, recreation, wetlands and other coastal habitats, water quality, biological productivity in coastal waters, coastal agriculture, and archaeological and paleontological resources.”

I note the Coastal Commission’s warning of “a significant impact on the coastal economy” and on “coastal development,” which shuns, or should shun, new development. Indeed, the days of blufftop condo proliferation are over.

Laura Walsh is the policy coordinator for beach preservation at Surfrider. She tells me by phone that the Army Corps’ project emphasizes bluff erosion and sand nourishment not only because of homeowner rights, beach maintenance, and recreational needs but also because “they’re engineers,” beseeched by municipalities to do something, i.e., nourish starving beaches.

Moreover, she says the coming sand dumps have the “classic trademark of climate impact” on strapped localities. City planners seek the Corps’ local solutions to global events, a bit like using a pool mesh net to clean the Tijuana River. The scale invites a Sisyphean paradox. Even though no state or country seems able to control the climate Armageddon, communities, besieged by their citizens, believe they can—they must—adapt.

So, to make Surfrider policy coherent, Walsh ponders what’s at stake when flood damage from sea-level rise begins wreaking havoc on our coast’s infrastructure and its long-term economic stability. She looks beyond bluff failures to the needs of coastal locals and out-of-town sunbathers, the latter’s value inestimable to seaside towns.

In a 2018 San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative Vulnerability Study, the coastal economy faces significant risks from flooding. Between 40 and 50 percent of the county’s employment, businesses, wages, and salaries are found in the 30 zip codes that touch our 70-mile shore. For “buildings and equipment on commercial and industrial parcels,” a 6.5-foot rise in the ocean level will mean an annual economic loss of $2.4 to $2.8 billion. If infrastructures are raised or moved, which has its own price-tag, the calculation is less onerous—annual loses of $400 million.

Yet another study projects that by 2040, we must spend a total of $934 million to protect low-lying areas of the coast. It’s important to note that after the sea has risen, then high-tide floods will reach even higher levels and farther inland spread. And let’s not forget, by 2100 the August to October temperatures at the coast will be 7 to 9 degrees hotter than now. A new misery index of streets deluged with saltwater and blistering heat.

Managed Retreat from the Coast

Madelaine Cavalieri, statewide planning manager and sea-level-rise team member at the Coastal Commission, tells me by phone of three coastal protection strategies: engineered barriers, to replenish the beach or build seawalls; accommodation, to raise structures; and managed retreat, to remove them.

I ask her to summarize the nub of coastal erosion. “How do we manage the coastline,” she says, “in a way that continues to afford Californians and visitors access to the beach. Some coasts have very narrow beaches, dense residential development, on high cliffs; we know that when we put up seawalls and the sea-level rises, those beaches disappear. We have time,” she continues, “a number more decades to do it right. We also are at risk of not doing it right. Maybe protection and accommodation” of coastal property “will work for a certain period of time.” But, “options for relocation” are in the works.

The term “managed retreat” is a colossal option, more fraught than any other “fix.” It’s a sort of bureaucratic white flag, a capitulation to the coming landward march of the ocean. What does the phrase mean?

In another report from the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative on adaptation strategies, to retreat means to remove a “hazard” property so that erosion will “occur without intervention.” This means either demolition or relocation. Relocating an entire clifftop house is studied but such engineering marvels are unfeasible. Demolition requires “disposal of all debris, disconnecting or capping gas, power, and water utilities.”

How might homeowners be compensated for these drastic changes? One is a sand mitigation tax added to a home’s assessed value to pay for sand dumps as well as erecting and maintaining interim seawalls. Another solution, albeit cheeky, is to buy the homes (not clear with whose pot of gold), then rent them as Airbnb beach havens until the loan is paid and the worn-out enclave can be torn down before the cliff beneath collapses. The Coastal Commission notes in one study that the cost of doing nothing, “unmanaged retreat,” is four to ten times worse than enacting some mitigation.

Laura Walsh says she’s “sad to say those tools” to help beach homeowners retreat from the coast are largely “the creative ideas of individuals. We haven’t been able to have the real nuanced conversation we need to have around this issue,” she argues, for many reasons. Among them, the adversarial litigation that pits private property rights against Coastal Act regulations, the cause of public access, in particular.

The true players, Walsh notes, are not the immediate beneficiaries of sand replenishment. Rather, they are those whose primary interests are real estate, insurance, and tourism as well as state, federal, and military planners, each of whom must absorb the financial blows (or sue for damages) when coasts flood, storms trash property, and bluffs snuff out more beach dwellers. Some of these parties seek to incentivize a sane managed retreat policy by identifying our most endangered resources.

Walsh lists them: Carlsbad’s power plant and its proximity to the sea; the city of Oceanside where the beach disappears in the winter because of the town’s clogged harbor; the city of San Diego’s wastewater facilities and sewage pipelines that run to the ocean; Highway 101; the environs all along San Diego Bay; sea-nurtured estuaries and marshlands; Amtrak, jury-rigged on shaky trestles and prayerful engineers, in Del Mar; and large and small coastal structures like lifeguard towers, parking lots, restaurants, motels, apartment units, bungalows, marinas, docks. All worrisomely vulnerable in the next 10 to 30 years.

Wealthy coastal homeowners can hire lawyers and lobby legislators for their needs, but that may not equate to the public interest. Walsh regrets that Surfrider has no plan to help a homeowner like Diane Korsh who feels her home, in the regulatory maelstrom, is expendable. Walsh sympathizes with Korsh’s no-win position. “Without some transfer of responsibility” to the state for a bluff-home’s peril or without “deed restrictions” when a property changes hands, home values will sink and insurance rates will skyrocket.

The coastal class will not be able to ride the Big Kahuna, in part, because individual adaptation to the climate-change calendar is irrelevant. What’s on its way—coming tomorrow and in a century—only governmental and political and technological institutions can reckon with. Therein lies the beachhead no sand can nourish.