How can we save America’s vanishing beaches?
Shorelines are shrinking. Storms are flooding streets and battering homes. Coastlines around the country are being hit by climate change.
And, perhaps surprisingly, California is offering an example of how the coast can be saved.
So says the latest annual State of the Beach Report Card released Tuesday by the Surfrider Foundation.
The report grades 30 states and Puerto Rico on policies that address coastal erosion, sea level rise and extreme weather events. The San Clemente-based nonprofit has compiled the report annually since 2000.
While California earned high marks in most categories — and was the only state to receive an “A” — the results show that most coastal states are losing the battle with climate change, and that all states need to make improvements if they want to keep their coasts.
“Our beaches are disappearing at alarming rates, and our report shows that the majority of states do not have strong policies in place to protect our coasts, or worse, have loopholes that actually prevent it,” said Dr. Chad Nelsen, Surfrider’s chief executive, in a prepared release.
Thirteen states scored a D or F, including states that in recent years have been hit hard by hurricanes. Every state in the Gulf Coast region except Texas scored a D or F, and Texas scored only a C. Puerto Rico, still struggling seven weeks after being slammed by Hurricane Maria, earned a D rating.
Other beaches along the West Coast didn’t fare as well as California. Alaska earned an “F” grade, while Washington was given a “B,’ and Oregon a “C” grade.
“A glaring trend of the report reveals that many of the areas hit hardest from recent extreme weather events are the least prepared to address coastal erosion, rising sea levels and the increasing impacts of climate change,” Nelsen said.
The problems aren’t theoretical.
In October, strong surf and high tides pushed water onto streets and into some homes on parts of Newport Peninsula.
“Whether or not you’re going to be overtaken by sea water isn’t something that anyone should worry about,” said Newport Beach resident Mike Glenn, after the flooding.
According to the report, the ocean provides more than just a pretty place to gaze as the sun dips into the sea. It is an economic driver, providing more than $352 billion to U.S. gross domestic product each year. Coastal tourism and recreation are worth more than $100 billion, providing 2.15 million jobs around the country.
But the coast also is particularly vulnerable, with erosion accounting for about $500 million a year in lost property values as a result of damaged structures and disappearing land. The federal government spends about $150 million a year on beach replenishment and on other ways to control coastal erosion.
The report also addresses the issue of rising seas. Oceans could rise six feet by 2100, spelling huge trouble for low-lying areas such as Long Beach, Seal Beach and Newport Beach, which are already threatened by ocean water.
“Rising tides will also likely impact coastal economies, communities, public access, recreation, and healthy ecosystems,” the report reads.
The report said 22 of 31 regions assessed are doing “a mediocre to poor job responding to coastal erosion and sea level rise planning, especially in areas that are most impacted by extreme weather events.”
The report noted some positive trends.
In Northern California, officials closed the last sand-mining plant in the United States, saving 270,000 cubic yards of sand from being illegally removed from beaches in Monterey. And along beaches in Humboldt, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties, some 6,200 acres were designated as Coastal National Monuments.
The threat posed by coastal erosion extends far beyond California. The report noted that a U.S. Geological Survey found that about half of all U.S. coastlines are either at “high” or “very high” risk due to coastal erosion.
Coastal erosion is driven by several factors, including development, rising seas, and high-intensity storms. Some of those factors, but not all, are connected to climate change.
The desire to live by the coast can also have a lasting effect. Developments can block the natural flow of sediment to the coastline, siphoning off sand that moves down watersheds to naturally replenish beaches.
Southern California is no exception to coastal erosion challenges, and agencies spend millions on projects to keep beaches sandy.
San Clemente, for example, spent about $600,000 to have sand imported to North Beach only to have much of it swept out to sea in last winter’s storm season. Many other areas of the coast, like Sunset Beach and West Newport, have regular sand replenishment projects that can cost into the millions.
Short-term approaches like sand replenishment and the construction of hard stabilization structures with ‘coastal armoring,’ as was done at San Onofre State Beach after erosion threatened a dirt access road into the popular beach, aren’t always the best approach, according to Surfrider.
“While applied as a quick-fix, scientists have found that sand replenishment projects can cause environmental damage and unintended ecological consequences, while shoreline armoring actually exacerbates erosion by blocking the natural flow of sand and effectively starving beaches,” the report reads.
Climate change and sea level rise pose challenges that spread beyond the beach. Temperatures are rising, hurricanes and other storms are more powerful, ice sheets are melting and droughts (and other extreme weather events) last longer.
Scientists anticipate ocean temperatures also will continue to rise, bringing even more intense storms.
“We need to proactively and strategically turn the tide now to avoid the loss of beaches, homes, communities, public access, recreation and ecosystems,” the report reads. “In terms of coastal erosion, this isn’t just about the loss of beaches, it’s about the increasing loss of livable land for our communities.”
The grades issued by the Surfrider Foundation reflected numerical scores for each state, from 1 (bad) to 3 (good), based on the presence and strength of specific policies related to beach preservation. Category scores were added up and translated into overall letter grades, A to F.
California earned top scores in every category except coastal armoring, which was rated a “2” by Surfrider. The state’s overall score was an 11.
California’s grade was boosted by the state’s recently implemented “Coastal Sediment Management Workgroup,” in which several agencies collaborate to establish regional sand management plans. Also, most sand replenishment projects in California are reviewed by the California Coastal Commission (CCC), which implements conditions to curtail environmental impacts and develop monitoring plans. The state also has created long-term strategies for sediment management.
When it comes to “development,” the Golden State earned a “good” rating.
“Through the Coastal Act, California has established solid development standards by implementing setback requirements through Local Coastal Programs (LCPs); limiting new development and redevelopment through permit conditions; establishing environmentally sensitive areas that require additional protection to prevent degradation; and ensuring public access,” the report reads.
The response to sea level rise in California also has been “good,” according to Surfrider, which applauded the state’s strong planning policies and laws. State law now requires cities and counties to include climate issues when formulating long-term general plans.
learn more at the OCR