Safety and environmental concerns

Photo courtesy city of Pacifica

The city is now actively engaging the public in deliberations for the “Beach Boulevard Infrastructure Resiliency Project.” Discussions will be underway for months, and there is Public Workshop at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4. You can access it here: The current focus is on alternative designs under consideration with the consulting engineering firm.

A main motivation is the protection of city infrastructure under Beach Boulevard. The primary option is a new seawall. I feel that a number of important points deserve attention.

What guidance is being given to the consultants on the range of alternatives to evaluate? The City’s fact sheet says the plan is to “replace seawall and outdated infrastructure while building climate resilience.” Hard-armoring seems to be the only alternative being considered. Resilience connotes recovery after damage or flexibility so an environment can bend without breaking. Armoring, per se, may be protection, but is not resilience. It seems important to consider now not only what maintenance is anticipated, but also what contingency plans are being made for eventual failure. Seawalls commonly increase the movement of sand offshore and can even accelerate erosion of adjacent coastlines. No one knows how much these effects will be magnified as sea level rises. Might undercutting be increased enough to compromise the wall’s protection drastically? A resiliency study should include such scenarios and evaluate the relative costs.

What is Plan B? All physical structure fail. We face real uncertainty about the strength and frequency of major storms, compounded by uncertain rates of rising sea level. What levels of maintenance are predicted in the future? In the case of catastrophic failure (collapse from undercutting), what will we have to do? Isn’t it prudent to consider and evaluate alternatives now considering how each one may fare 50–100 years in the future?

How can we evaluate relative costs of scenarios, especially for the case of seawall failure? Engineering plans should consider the full range of potential scenarios. It is likely that money spent now on broader planning will be more economical in the long run.

What is the condition of the infrastructure? Water, gas, and electricity may be less challenging than sewers. If these physical systems have weaknesses it may favor different alternatives. The city monitors this and a Multi Hazard Risk Assessment is due out in February.

I’m an oceanographer not a coastal engineer, but seems to me to be prudent to evaluate now the option of more straightforward short-term protection of the promenade, plus a concurrent gradual major effort to move the infrastructure back from this threatened location. In a 2018 report commissioned by the Pacifica, the Army Corps of Engineers concluded a seawall was not cost effective to protect the infrastructure along Beach Boulevard and in any case exceeded their cap of $10 million. More importantly, the cost of protecting new sea wall from undercutting doubled the cost from $15 million to about $30 million.

Do we even have a responsible estimate of the cost of moving this infrastructure? This half-mile of needs to be resilient for the next 100 years.

Defensible cost estimates for a range of alternatives are needed. Other places in Pacifica have infrastructure concerns, and coastal hazards are not the only environmental risks throughout Pacifica. Beach Boulevard promises to be expensive and is not the only one we need to plan for. That said, for this one project, if we don’t have engineering analyses, the costs can’t be evaluated. And where might the funds come from? It is easy to say this has to wait, and that funding might come from state and federal sources. But the entire coastline of the United States is facing serious and expensive projects to build resiliency. Our plans must be reasonable and responsible, and consistent with California’s Coastal Act for us to have a chance in what will be extremely tight competition. It is not my original observation, but Pacifica must be careful about demanding local control if it is unwilling to accept local responsibility.

I plan to attend this workshop, listening for answers to these concerns. Whatever your questions are about this proposed project, the workshop on Thursday Feb. 4 is the next opportunity to participate in a major planning effort for Pacifica’s future. If you miss it, you can catch up at the city’s website, and look there for future meetings and information.

James Kremer

Sharp Park

Professor of Oceanography, emeritus

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