The Seawall Amendment: A Discussion

AB2943 – The Seawall Amendment.
A Q&A With Chad Nelson
Environmental Director of the Surfrider Foundation
by Chris Dixon

Chris Dixon: Why should any of us give a damn about AB2943?

Chad Nelson: It’s important for anyone who cares about beaches and surfing in Calfornia. Which is obviously a lot of people. There’s a study by a guy named King out of Sacramento who talks about the $19 billion that our beaches generate a year. So it’s more than just recreational tourism, it’s also economics. This bill gives beach preservation a shot along with protecting coastal structures. California has the least progressive policy when it comes to building seawalls on the beach of any state in the nation.

CD: You’d think it would be the opposite.

CN: You would because of our reputation as a progressive state. The first thing people think of when they think of California is the beaches.

CD: What would the bill do in a nutshell?

CN: It’s a one-word amendment to the California coastal act. It changes one section which describes the coastal commission’s options when they’re considering alternatives to protect the beach and coastal property from erosion. Right now it says that in certain circumstances a seawall shall be permitted. All we’re asking is that they change that shall to a may. So instead of being forced to choose a seawall as the only alternative to responding to an erosion problem, they’ll be able to look at other alternatives. It’s not going to say that they’re going to approve a seawall it just says hey they may look at other alternatives.

CD: Give me an example of where this one word could have an impact.

CN: Well, another element of this one word amendment is that right now there’s a section in the coastal act that says if you’re going to build a new property on the coast, you need to build it in such a way that it will never require a seawall. The section that we’re changing says if there’s an existing structure that’s threatened by erosion, then you SHALL permit a seawall. So these two sections are in conflict. One part is saying hey, any new structure built, it can’t be built with a seawall, then the other part says, well if it’s existing, even if you should have built it so you never need a seawall, we’re going to give you one anyway.

So anywhere you see new development, there are people who are building houses knowing full well that they’re going to need a seawall and just relying on the fact that there’s this conflict to bail them out. It’s encouraging poor planning. There are examples in San Diego where you’ll see a house being built and they’ll find a geologist to approve the project, and then they’ll guarantee that project won’t need a seawall. Then a few years later, that same group will come to the coastal commission and say, ‘hey’ this property is existing , we need a seawall’.

So we’re taking one of the elements of the Coastal Act that requires good planning and seriously weakened it by this conflict. So by changing it to may, now they don’t get that auto out, and that will encourage better planning. And it’s important to remember that in the grand scheme, it’s a pretty subtle change. States like Oregon, Texas, North and South Carolina ban seawalls outright. They’re the ones we consider to have the most progressive policies.

CD: I read that in the early 70’s San Diego had 3 miles of seawall and coastal armoring. Now there are 20 miles. In 50 or 60 miles of coast, that’s tremendous.

CN: I’ve heard that Solana beach has had 20 seawalls in 20 years. And we know that in the 70’s, California had about 20 odd miles of seawalls, and now we have over 100. So there has been a 400 percent increase over the last 20 years – one tenth of our entire coast. That trend is going to continue unless we change ourpolicies.

CD: What are the effects of seawalls?

CN: There are a number of effects. When you build a seawall, that seawall is almost always built on the sand. So there’s a thing called placement loss. That’s literally just the footprint of the wall. If it’s like a riprap seawall (big boulders placed along the beach) like you see protecting the train tracks in San Clemente — that thing has a very wide footprint. There are acres and acres of public beach being lost to seawalls.

CD: That also amounts to a “taking” of public property by a private land holder, which in this case is the railroad, or in other cases might be homeowners or hotels restricting public access to a beach.

CN: Right. Then there is another effect called passive erosion. And what this means is that if you have a coastline that’s eroding but you still have a nice, sandy beach. If you fix the inland side of the beach with a seawall, and that water continues to rise, you’ll see a narrowing of the beach. So this passive erosion is where we lose beach. Then there’s another effect called active erosion, and that’s a controversial topic. The idea is that seawalls actually cause a backwash which actively pushes sand offshore. Some engineers debate that it’s not a real phenomenon, others say it is. It’s a controversial thing.

CD: Well it seem like an obvious thing where if you’ve ever surfed a spot where the waves are refracting back out to sea off a seawall.

CN: Absolutely and that’s’ where these things start to affect swells. Marco Gonzales, our chapter chair in San Diego talks about seeing that happen at Cardiff on big swells and at high tide at Swamis too.

CD: I’ve seen waves even bounce off the eroding bluffs at places like Terramar. And it seems like at San Clemente State Beach, the beach slopes up so steeply now that you get a big backwash on a higher tide.

CN: Another big impact is called the end around effect — you build a seawall and through complicated coastal process issues, you get erosion around the sides. So you build a seawall, your neighbor starts to suffer because of it, so they build a seawall too.

Those are the primary impacts. You have the placement loss, the passive erosion, the active erosion that may or may not exist and this end around effect, and then on top of that we see the other impact is that they prevent bluffs from naturally eroding and providing sand.

CD: If you’ve ever been to the Trails beaches south of San Onofre…

CN: It’s obviously an important process.

CD: At Trails you have wide beaches, naturally eroding bluffs and a great beachbreak with no backwash or refraction.

CN: Exactly. And in different locations that bluff has different levels of importance. There were studies in San Diego that found those bluffs contribute 11 percent to the sand. Some argue that is significant, others say not, Considering we’re losing our sand from other sources like dams along the watershed, it would be very important.