California Dreaming

How is California dealing with its disappearing coast?

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in San Clemente, California, on its way to San Diego. (Steve Wilson / Wikimedia Commons)

The questions raised by global warming, climate change, sea-level rise, and the resulting migration crisis are not to be taken lightly. They offer us myriad dramas in the form of disappearing cities, changing neighborhoods, dwindling resources, and existential anxiety about living near water. The Los Angeles Times recently took on some of these tough questions in a special report titled “California Against the Sea.”

Illustrated with sweeping photography (not shown here) of the state’s Pacific shore, the extensive feature examines the disappearing California coast, potential fixes, and the consequences those fixes might bring. As much as two-thirds of the beaches in California could be gone by the end of the century. In California alone, it is estimated that $150 billion in property could be at risk of flooding.

Several points became clear from reading the LA Times reporting, done by Rosanna Xia. One is that the problems created when parts of the coast become uninhabitable are not easily solved by design or technology. Physical interventions, like seawalls—which can cost up to $200,000 per house—often make the problem worse by encouraging erosion and sand build-up around the structure; short-term solutions, like adding sand to beaches, are expensive, and there is only so much sand in the world. Environmentalists and many others favor “managed retreat,” or carefully and systematically moving away from the coast, but this option faces deep resistance from some landowners.

A railroad track above the shoreline

Del Mar, looking south to Torrey Pines State Reserve
(Kosigrim/Wikimedia Commons)

The report shows that the crisis is a real estate drama above all else. Entrenched interests are often opposed to solutions to environmental issues if those solutions threaten people’s property. Especially in California, a strong tradition of homeownership is at odds with what many consider sensible public management of the coastline.

These conflicts are already playing out on a small scale. In Pacifica, a small city just south of San Francisco, the beach is already eroding, despite efforts begun in the 1970s to install seawalls, piles of rocks, and special concrete to preserve the shoreline. Although some homes have already been removed from the coast, not all residents are willing to accept managed retreat.

“‘Managed retreat’ is a code word for giving up—on our homes and the town itself,” Mark Stechbart, who is concerned about the future value of his Pacifica home, told the Times. “This is not just some intellectual exercise. These are real people and a real town at stake.”

“The public has rights to the beach, but I apparently don’t have rights to my house,” Suzanne Drake, another homeowner said in the report. “I’m a left-of-left Democrat, but these environmental zealots are next level.”



It is fairly scary to think about how these issues will play out if the scale and seriousness of the crisis grow. According to the Times, in the last 100 years, sea levels rose 9 inches along the California coast, but are expected to go up by as much as 9 feet by the year 2100. If a town like Pacifica is experiencing this kind of disagreement and controversy when a handful of houses are involved, how will a city like Miami deal with entire neighborhoods negotiating how to relocate (or not)? Each person has their own beliefs and personal fortune at stake. This is unfortunately already happening in Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina, among other places.

There are no straightforward design solutions. Lessons from the past say that human intervention can actually make things worse—not to mention that safeguarding the whole state of California would require upward of $22 billion, according to the Times.

A simulated game in the special report has three outcomes: loss of beaches due to seawall construction; cost overruns; and success, by way of managed retreat and careful diplomacy that requires negotiating with individual homeowners.

There are problems with the latter solution. Buyout programs have proven successful elsewhere, but not in places with coastal California market prices. Staten Island’s post–Hurricane Sandy program bought 300 homes for $120 million, which would buy about ten houses in Malibu.

These are massive problems that are only going to get bigger. Can design do anything to help? Or if it is a question of real estate, can the markets be managed without tearing communities apart? If California is any indication, both of these possibilities appear unlikely.

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