Step Back

Pierpont Beach in Ventura County | Photo via State of CA
Ventura County seems to be channeling its inner King Canute, the legendary Danish conqueror of the British Isles. A millennium ago this powerful monarch is said to have commanded the waves to stop, the tides to cease. Much to the amazement of his fawning courtiers, Canute's words had no impact on the crashing waters but his subsequent comment--however apocryphal or staged--has resounded across time: "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings."

The "Gold Coast" of Southern California seems to have taken the humbled Dane's insight to heart: this winter Ventura County ripped out a parking lot and concrete bike path that abutted Surfer's Point and moved these amenities further inland. The project, officially known as the Surfer's Point Managed Shoreline Retreat, is by name and action a deliberate acknowledgement that we too cannot control the sea.

This small act is part of a larger reconception of the human presence along the California coast, especially the heavily populated stretch from Santa Barbara to San Diego. No longer are coastal engineers convinced that the best protection against the Pacific's tidal energy is to bring in the heavy armor. Where once they built seawalls, erected jetties, and laid down riprap, certain that these technologies would repulse waves' erosive power, or redirect sand to preferred locales, they now are adopting a softer approach.

Born of decades of research into the dynamic interaction between the ocean and the shore, and the critical role that rivers play in maintaining healthy beaches, scientists, planners, and enlightened government officials are beginning to enact innovative policies that will free nature to do its work.

Rincon Beach in Ventura County | Photo via State of CA
Encompassing much of this new thinking is the 2010 California Beach Erosion Assessment (.pdf) study. Its central thrust is that Southern California beaches--which attract tens of millions of sun-worshipping visitors a year--are in deep trouble as a direct result of human actions that "have substantially altered the natural movement of sand and drastically reduced the natural supply of sediment to the coastline, thereby modifying seasonal beach building and erosion cycles."

Upstream dams and debris basins, so valued for their capacity to control rampaging floodwaters, rob coastal areas of much-needed material nourishment. Every channelized river and stream, like the massive amount of impervious asphalt that sprawls across the region, and the incessant sand mining in local alluvial fans and riparian systems, has combined as well to "substantially decrease the supply of beach-compatible sediment provided to the coastline." Toss in the innumerable groins and breakwaters that litter the roughly 300 miles of SoCal coastline and its no wonder that many beaches are starved for sand.

None of these interrelated issues are unique to California. The Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast suffer similarly, as do the European and Mediterranean, South African, Mexican, and Australian shores. Wherever urban development and intense beachfront recreation converge that's where you will find concrete infrastructure designed to enhance the tourist experience that is also responsible for compromising the shape-shifting terrain. As we have rushed to protect what we love, we've actually undercut these sandy objects of our desire.

This unsettling situation is further destabilized by climate change, which is elevating sea levels around the globe. The Arctic and Antarctic icesheets have been melting at a rate faster than any model has predicted; the sparkling beaches of the Cook Islands and other Pacific atolls have begun to slip beneath the rising waters; facing inundation too are such mega-cities as Mumbai and Lagos. The injustice is staggering: these communities contributed precious little to the greenhouse-gasses that have heated our atmosphere, but nonetheless will pay a very heavy price, one element of which is recognizing that there is no amount of concrete that can stabilize their imperiled ground.

That's a lesson that should not be lost along the more-secure Southern California coastline, and why Ventura County offers a small, but important solution: pull back. Retreat from the beach, and as we withdraw tear out the fixed structures and hardened surfaces that have made our coastlines so rigid and vulnerable. We ought as well to admit that cities built at or below sea level--think New Orleans--are in jeopardy, and then devise ways to facilitate their rebirth on drier land. Doing so will require a political will and financial investment that beggars the imagination, but we don't have any other choice.

Carpinteria City Beach in Santa Barbara County | Photo by State of CA
Maybe then we will be ready to admit that humanity cannot command or control nature, an arrogance that long ago King Canute decried at the edge of the sea.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

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