Cracking structures, landslides, red-tagged buildings, and displaced residents.
These are the markers of a reckoning for cliffside developers and coastal Orange County.
It’s an erosion crisis that’s shifting coastal landscapes – all punctuated by recent heavy rains, which are saturating the earth beneath multi million-dollar homes.
The problem poses threats to a number of other things, like coastal highways and critical rail lines providing military and freight transport, along with passenger cars.
During the atmospheric river last week, a partial collapse of a residential hillside in San Clemente ended with red tags on four apartment buildings, clearing about 20 units.
It also led to a home demolition in Newport Back Bay, along with the yellow-tagging of others.
As people checked into hotels last week and rushed back into unsafe buildings to recover what they could, some wondered whether it was but a taste of what eventually awaits a number of neighborhoods that sit right up on the coast.
Namely as the region braces for another storm today.
Two years ago, legislative analysts in Sacramento predicted that with 3-6 feet of sea level rise, up to two‑thirds of Southern California beaches could erode completely by 2100.
Those predictions have only gotten larger in the time since, said Dr. Kathleen Treseder, an Irvine City Council member and UC Irvine ecology professor.
“Until very recently, we were predicting about six feet,” said Treseder, who added that new observations about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet have “raised that prediction to 10 feet.”
“Ten feet will swamp a lot of land in coastal California. And anyone who has a home within 100 feet of a sea cliff, I think they should be thinking about safety,” said Treseder, who applied the warning not only to homeowners above those cliffs – but for the hikers, beachgoers and tourists below them.
With increasing storms, coastal bluffs and the homes on top of them face dangers from multiple fronts:
“More extreme weather events cause supersaturation of the soil which causes these slides, but the base of these coastal bluffs are also being pummeled by rising tides … so it’s happening on both edges, the toe and the top of these bluffs,” said Donne Brownsey, chair of the California Coastal Commission.
The panel came to life through the California Coastal Act of 1976, which set new statewide standards for developments that could adversely affect the coast.
But does everybody need to worry?
Brownsey says “No.”
She said no area’s the same: “The geological makeup of particular neighborhoods and coastal bluffs – it really just depends.”
A common thread, however, is “the intensive intensity of the development, particularly in Southern California” where bluffs were sculpted – “leveled out with fill” to meet the grading needs of a home.
Brownes said local jurisdictions need to conduct “vulnerability assessments,” identify risk areas, and enact “resiliency plans” while being mindful that even those options – like rip-rap and boulders – can have their own environmental downsides.
Another agency in need of resiliency?
“That rail line,” Brownsey said.
Last month saw the return of some weekend train service between Orange County and San Diego, after remnants of a hurricane accelerated a slow-moving landslide, affecting the tracks and passenger service in September.
But the rail corridor doesn’t just transport people.
“For decades, it’s been a star of the rail line, not only because it’s extremely, stunningly beautiful – But also, it’s the second-most important rail line in terms of freight and the military,” Brownsey said.
At a news conference on the scene of the San Clemente landslide last week, Congressman Mike Levin called for the relocation of those tracks.
And last month, Orange County Transportation Authority officials said they would look into it, as part of their own coastal erosion resilience “framework” they presented last month, which includes “developing options for protecting, or potentially moving, the rail line.”
For San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan, as well as other local leaders at an on-scene news conference last week, the questions came fast and from all directions.
And not just from reporters.
Residents of the street outnumbered members of the media.
And they wanted to know:
When would it be safe to return?
What danger awaited them down the road?
It’s all “just a sign of what we’re facing,” said Duncan in a Monday phone interview. “You have a lot of nervous homeowners along these bluffs that are certainly concerned with what area might be next.”
“If you’re a person like me in local government, you’ve got to think about and be very sensitive to the people who are living in these areas and people who own property here. I’m one who thinks that we can probably better balance the ownership rights … with the larger realization of how to deal with the effects of climate change,” Duncan said.
He called for a more middle-ground approach to state development restrictions around coastal homeowners fortifying their properties, while also ensuring “we don’t have hard structures put in place that make the situation worse.”
He said the city is currently studying nature-based measures like vegetation and artificial reefs to slow erosion, and said information about those options is expected to turn around between October and November.
Underlying the issue is this question:
How much can homeowners actually do to save their homes?
In some cases it’s up to the Coastal Commission, from which homeowners can apply for emergency permits, said Brownsey of the Coastal Commission.
“The question is: Will it be helpful in the short and long term? It’s a case-by-case assessment,” Brownsey said.
In other cases, like a home demolished in Newport Beach on March 16, the problem is “too much to really save the home, there isn’t anything to do that will make that home safe.”
Dana Point Councilman Mike Frost said the numerous coastal and environmental groups need to be working together.
“You would get all the stakeholders that really care about coastal erosion – Surfrider, Coastal Commission, homeowners – you get them all in a room and you define like five or six different ways to handle it … and make everybody sign off on it. And then localities would say, ‘Alright, I gotta pick one of the six. I better implement it this way,’” Frost said.
The councilman, whose district includes Dana Point Harbor and Strands Beach, said there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful coordination on the issue in a section of the region split between municipal and state control.
“There needs to be sort of an organized process that a city or county or a stakeholder can go through to determine how they can help manage their coastal erosion. Maybe the answer from the Coastal Commission is, ‘Well, you can’t do anything. We have to do a managed retreat.’ At least then people know that.”
Beneath “layers of bureaucracy,” Frost said the coast is washing away.
At Strands Beach, where he surfs, “the sands are totally gone in the winter.”
“But then, of course, the big thing is down in Capistrano Beach – I mean, everybody can see that,” Frost said of a public area where facilities and structures have crumbled into the sea.
“And that’s not even the last 15 years.”
“That’s really the last six years.”
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