As we know, Pacifica is nationally (in)famous for online videos showing our coastline literally melting out from under us. Entire houses and apartment buildings have had to be razed to prevent them from falling into the ocean. We are on the proverbial bleeding edge of inexorable oceanic-geologic processes.
Pacifica could have been a model for an enlightened, far-sighted, science-driven approach to sea level rise. The California Coastal Commission would have been supportive. Pacifica’s particular vulnerability combined with our past persistence in encouraging new development in the sensitive coastal zone must consume much of their staff time. But Pacifica seems to have chosen another path.
In 2018, the Coastal Commission-funded update of our outdated LCP met harsh headwinds. The draft by a highly respected consultant merely introduced the possibility of the future necessity of a “managed retreat” of endangered structures if conditions worsened in the future. But the very idea of relocation, however far in the future, was denounced and demonized by the San Mateo County real estate industry, and the term itself became anathema to homeowners in the coastal zone. They were convinced their home values would plummet if the idea gained currency. Consequently, the draft was purged of any and all reference to the dreaded concept.
Into this mindset the apparent necessity to upgrade an aging stretch of the underbuilt side of a seawall arose. What to do?
Pacifica having destroyed the mile or so of beaches from the pier north, now wants to double down with another bigger armoring project. A series of Zoom public meetings have yielded something called the “hybrid option.” It combines a new seawall with a rock revetment “apron” concept and much pumped-in sand. As with building too close to the water’s edge (Esplanade Avenue), the original armoring, the seawall, was put in before we knew any better. Presumably now we do. Now we know beach armoring prevents sand travel and is harmful to beach survival. We need to slowly retire our seawalls and rock revetment, not build better versions.
Let’s not double down with an expensive ($114 million) project knowing full well it destroys beaches. Better yet, why not show the way with wise preparation and respect for the future, relentless, landward push of Mother Ocean? A 30-foot-deep seawall and a 30-foot-wide revetment apron is not the answer. Adding the “icing on the cake” of sand nourishment is cynical and misleading. The East Coast has been experiencing the futility of pumping sand in to restore beaches for years.
That said, there is a need to respond to the failing stretch of “retaining wall” north of the pier. But that can be done by duplicating on the north side with an updated design version of the still-solid south portion. Rebuilding the entire seawall is not necessary and is overkill.
Also, the much lamented gap between the seawall’s south end and the berm protecting the golf course needs to be filled by an extension of a new seawall portion to prevent future flooding. This can be done for far less than $114 million.
This effort to redesign and repurpose the pleasant but utilitarian area north and south of the pier — which itself needs work — is part of a misguided fantasy of creating some kind of upscale tourist-alluring promenade there. This runs contrary to what is happening with SLR. Rearmoring will prevent the beaches along there from ever returning to normal.
We can back away slowly, carefully, from the ocean’s edge. SLR is the driver; the return of our beaches is the reward.
Pacifica could be a leader. Creative solutions are possible. We can enjoy the beach without building on it or too close it. Others agree. Legislation has been suggested that would allow the state or a municipality to purchase and then rent SLR-endangered properties until deemed unsafe. Simply setting up funds to purchase structures deemed unsafe is a possibility. All properties will not be in harm’s way at the same time. SLR is a process, not an event.
I am under no illusion that there is political support on the City Council for the positions presented here. The City Council has now committed the city to find the first $2 million to get this whole “hybrid” endeavor launched. I hope members know what they are doing.
Victor Carmichael lives in Pacifica.