Pacifica’s staff and City Council have been working on a plan to address rising sea levels since 2018. After a three-year back-and-forth with the California Coastal Commission that had stalled significant progress, the council’s new work plan commits to working closely with the Coastal Commission to get a plan approved by the end of the year.
The loggerhead is indicative of different priorities of the city and the Coastal Commission, and reflects wider statewide challenges in planning for a future made uncertain by climate change.
One undisputed result of a warming planet is that sea levels are rising, and Pacifica has become a poster child for the effects of waves overtopping seawalls, flooding seaside residences and eroding cliffs. The Local Coastal Land Use Plan — a state-required document — outlines how the city intends to address this growing threat over the next decades.
Pacifica began the work by hiring an environmental consulting firm to assess the city’s vulnerabilities and create an adaptation plan. The report explored the three basic strategies any location can take to cope with rising waters: protection, accommodation and retreat.
Protection or “armoring” methods are engineering solutions that attempt to keep the water away from vulnerable structures. These can be either “hard” structures like seawalls, levees and rock riprap, or “soft” strategies like bringing in sand to build up a beach or creating wetlands as a wave buffer. Accommodation involves finding ways to live with occasional flooding; for example by raising structures above flood levels or adding pumps to remove the water. Retreat is a last-ditch strategy for relocating structures that can no longer be protected and restricting development in locations where sea level rise is likely to cause future problems.
The disputed draft plan calls for coastal armoring as the main response to sea level rise. Currently in Pacifica, a significant portion of the shoreline is protected by structures such as the seawall at Beach Boulevard and rock riprap at Rockaway Beach and below Esplanade Avenue. Projects to rebuild some of those defenses are already underway or in the planning stages.
Such structures can slow the erosion of the shore and the land above it, at least for a time. They are also expensive to build, and they must be maintained and eventually replaced.
Another trade-off: armoring threatens beaches, because erosion produces the sand that creates beaches, and because in an era of rising seas, the ocean will eventually drown existing beaches. If there’s a hard wall, the beach has no way to move inland. An armored coastline is, eventually, a coastline without beaches, according to the Coastal Commission.
Because of this effect, the Commission does not favor armoring as a planning strategy. The Commission enforces the state Coastal Act, which ensures that California's beaches and access to them are protected for all state residents.
Pacifica envisions combining hard protections with the soft solution of importing sand to enhance beaches. Broad beaches can keep waves away from the bluffs, and they provide important recreation for people, but like hard armoring, “beach nourishment” needs ongoing maintenance — in this case, to replace sand periodically as it washes away.
The plan does not lean much on accommodation strategies, but does mention elevating and floodproofing existing vulnerable structures.
Pacifica’s draft plan specifically rejects retreat as a strategy for coping with rising sea levels — despite the city having already used this approach and managed some retreat from its shoreline. In 2005, two houses were removed from Linda Mar Beach and the beach parking lot was pulled back from the water, part of a flood-control project that also enhanced the beach and habitat at the mouth of San Pedro Creek.
Over the years, the city has experienced a sobering amount of “unmangaged retreat” with the loss of houses, mobile homes and apartments due to erosion along the northern bluffs.
The original draft of the plan did include managed retreat as a potential strategy for some sections of the city. The idea was resisted by homeowners and Realtors concerned about property values and possible restrictions on uses of land in the city. In an election marked by vicious mailers from real estate interests, then-Mayor John Keener lost his council seat. The subsequent City Council removed managed retreat from the plan before submitting it to the Coastal Commission for approval.
The standoff between Pacifica and the commission center mostly on this absence, and on sections of the plan that address coastal armoring as the preferred strategy.
Other coastal cities in California are navigating similar issues, but many have managed to reach agreement with the commission and have approved coastal plans.
Many incorporate “trigger” language that ensures more extreme policies are only brought into play once certain conditions occur. For example, Half Moon Bay’s recently approved plan states, “Triggers for relocation or removal of the structure would be determined by changing site conditions,” such as when erosion or monthly high tides are within a certain distance of a site, or when essential services can no longer be safely delivered.
“We need to be planning for the future,” says City Council member Christine Boles. She points out that four of our five sewage pumping stations are in the vulnerable coastal zone.
“We should at least be identifying a site for them to move to. Maybe not for 20 years,” she said, but “sea level rise is coming, and probably faster than the projections we’ve been planning towards.”
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