Up and down California, rising seas are threatening seaside property. As of 2018, around 148 miles of the California coast have been fortified with jetties, breakwaters, sea walls and other hard barriers that safeguard roads, highways, harbors, military bases and homes.
But such features don’t always protect California’s pristine beaches. When waves reflect off a hard surface, like a sea wall, they wash more sand back out to sea, hastening coastal erosion. Despite this, officials are continuing to build barriers to protect coastal property, often using millions in taxpayer dollars to safeguard waterfront homes at the expense of public beaches.
“There’s a common misperception that sea walls are there to protect the beach, but they’re not,” says Kiersten Patsch, a geomorphologist at California State University Channel Islands. “It’s really an intentional choice of ‘We’re going to sacrifice the beach to protect what’s behind it.’”
The fight over sea walls has its origins in the Coastal Act of 1972. The act obligates the California Coastal Commission to protect beach access, public safety and—critically—“public and private property.” Often, these goals are mutually exclusive. If officials build a sea wall, they may end up sacrificing a public beach to protect the homes beside it. If they decline to build a sea wall, they may surrender the homes to preserve the beach. The conflicting dictates of the Coastal Act of 1972 have led to decades-long legal disputes with activists on one side, property owners on the other and the Coastal Commission caught in the middle.
Some lawmakers are working on what they see to be a win-win scenario. In December, California State Senator Ben Allen introduced legislation, SB-83, that would allow municipalities to obtain low-interest loans to buy coastal properties and rent those properties back to homeowners so as to raise enough money to pay back the loan.
The bill would protect homeowners against property loss, and it would give control of the land to the state to ensure that, when the time comes, the house could be dismantled or moved, obviating the need for sea walls. It also gives homeowners a way to sell their home while property values remain high, or continue living in their home for as long as possible. It’s unclear if the state would pay the market rate or if every coastal home would be eligible for the program. The bill made it out of committee with a unanimous, bipartisan vote and is headed to the floor of the state senate. Allen is optimistic that the bill will be signed into law.
This plan is contingent on homeowners being willing to sell, but with the looming specters of coastal erosion and catastrophic flooding, such a deal may prove enticing. The state would assume the risk of flooding, giving municipalities access to low-interest loans to buy these properties. Because the bill aims to be budget neutral, the state would need to make back its investment before the ocean renders the property uninhabitable.
“These are [risks] that the actuaries and underwriters are going to spend time looking at,” Allen says. “But the very reason [why coastal homes are] so vulnerable is why we could potentially gather really good rent from these properties: They’re right out on the ocean.”
Currently, coastal armoring can only be used to protect developments that were in existence at the time the Coastal Act was adopted in 1972, and is subject to approval by the commission. But there are also provisions for emergency permits—for use when property is under imminent threat—that activists say are being used as a loophole to avoid the lengthy review process.
“The emergency permitting process is often used as a loophole for both private applicants and local governments,” says Mandy Sackett, the California policy coordinator at The Surfrider Foundation. “The emergency armoring is installed with very little regulatory and environmental review. Once installed, it becomes politically difficult to deny permanent authorization or require removal.”
The net result has been more armoring. According to Patsch’s research, only 27 miles of California’s 840-mile coastline were armored in 1971. By 1998, that number had grown to 110 miles. By 2018, it was 148 miles.
“It’s definitely increasing,” says Madeline Cavalieri, the Coastal Program Manager at the Coastal Commission. “We always have projects coming before us.”
There are stopgap solutions on offer. Beach nourishment—adding sand to an eroding shoreline —promises to protect both the coastal property and the beach. Several counties, mostly in Southern California, have opted for this approach, but the cost can be high, and it’s only a temporary fix. An approved beach nourishment program in Solana Beach will provide sand for 50 years at an estimated total cost of $167 million, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. There’s also no guarantee that it will work.
“Look at Broad Beach, [Malibu],” Patsch says. “They’ve worked for 15 years to try to get 300,000 cubic yards of sand on their beach, and they still don’t have it. And just because you put it on there doesn’t mean that that’s where the natural shoreline is. The waves will win. The water will win.”
Patsch says part of the problem is that about 40% of Southern California’s usable sand isn’t getting to the beach. It’s trapped behind dams, like Matilija Dam, which prevents sediment from flowing along the Ventura River out to sea. Removing the dams could help supply much-needed new sand to California beaches, but even if the dams were removed, rivers would still need heavy rainfall to move the sediment downstream. With California enduring a severe drought, rainfall is hard to come by.
Patsch believes the only long term response to rising seas is a managed retreat, but this relies on homeowners being willing to give up their property. In more traditional scenarios, the state or federal government could invoke eminent domain to buy back coastal property from residents, but for coastal California, exorbitant property values make such an acquisition unaffordable.
Around $150 billion of coastal property in California could be at risk from flooding by 2100, according to research from the U.S. Geological Survey. Further, forcing coastal constituents to abandon their homes would be politically untenable. Without the money to buyout homeowners, the Coastal Commission has had few options for negotiation.
“Right now, the commission’s position is, essentially, that this is going to happen anyway,” says Jeffrey W. McCoy, an attorney who works for Pacific Legal Foundation representing property owners in Southern California.
“If California and local municipalities take away property owners’ rights to protect their home, then they need to compensate the property owners,” says McCoy. “SB-83 at least recognizes that property owners deserve compensation for California’s coastal management policies.”
That’s what makes Senator Allen’s new legislation enticing to parties on both sides. The buyback program attempts to thread the needle by making the retreat optional, offering homeowners the chance to leave on their own terms and receive compensation for their loss. The Surfrider Foundation, Pacific Legal Foundation and the Coastal Commission all support the legislation. If the buyback program works, it could serve as a model for how other states can handle property rights and climate change.
“We have an amazing opportunity. We have decades to plan. We don’t have hurricanes like they have on the east coast. We have time in California,” says Cavalieri. “If we can muster the will, then we have this avenue to a resilient coastline for generations to come.”