Can (and should) blufftop real estate be saved from natural erosion?


Posted by
Wed, January 6, 2010


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Sabrina Brennan

What are the real costs of saving blufftop real estate from natural erosion?

As the bluffs continue to erode under the apartment buildings in Pacifica, the potential futility and cost to the public of armoring the coastside becomes more clear.

Engineers have come up with some potential solutions to erosion that is threatening several Pacifica apartment buildings, reports Julia Scott in the County Times.

These will likely include a plan to stitch the top of the bluff together by installing a series of long "nails," or steel rods, deep inside the bluff, securing them in place with industrial-sized applications of grout, and then stretching a long concrete wall across the outside of the bluff that would be camouflaged to look like the natural face of the cliff. In addition, O’Connor wants to permanently protect the bottom of the cliff with a thick steel retaining wall sunk 30 feet into the beach. It would extend five or six feet above the beach, preventing the ocean from undermining the boulders already there. [...]

Neither [Esplanade co-owner Farshid] Samsami nor his wife returned calls Tuesday. Considering the cost of the boulders was estimated at $400,000, a long-term fix could easily surpass $1 million, although costs will be shared among the owners of all four buildings if they agree to a partnership.

"They can’t just leave it unrepaired because it’s going to threaten the neighbors and the road. They do have some responsibility to prevent this from impinging on others," O’Connor said.

Just before Christmas, Scott wrote an excellent summary of the issues involved in saving land and buildings that would wind up under water if nature were allowed to run its course.

 

The real question is whether this building and many others on the California coast should be continuously protected by artificial means rather than let Mother Nature take her course.

Esplanade Apartments has benefited from a loophole in the Coastal Act that allows all buildings constructed before 1972 to erect sea walls and other forms of protection if no other option exists. Today, plans for new buildings on the waterfront are approved by the Coastal Commission only if they allow for 50 years of natural bluff “retreat.”

Esplanade Apartments has capitalized on this rule for many years, most recently installing piles of riprap at the bottom of the cliff in 2003 and again this week, according to Ruby Pap, coastal planner with the Coastal Commission’s San Francisco office.

The soil in Pacifica is easily saturated and prone to landslides. In that sense, any feat of engineering only delays the inevitable.

“This is going to be happening more and more with the winter El Niños and climate change and bigger storms. This is a very hazardous area, so it may not last for many years. I am concerned this is not going to be a good long-term fix for these property owners,” said Pap.

The Coastal Commission is charged with ensuring public access to beaches, but that duty can conflict with constructed sea walls and the like. In some cases such projects accelerate the rate at which the ocean eats away at the beach below the sea wall, rendering some beaches impassable in wintertime, according to O’Connor, the engineer.

“Whether you install a sea wall or rock riprap and you slow the threat to the bluff or dune, the shoreline is still retreating seaward so at some point the beach will eventually disappear.”

Ultimately, the Coastal Commission must rule whether the proposed project can survive for 50 years.

 


Comment 1
Wed, January 6, 2010 10:06am
Deb Wong
All my comments

No.  Mother Nature will have her way, if not now, some other day. Michael’s sister & her husband live in a house on Esplanade, across the street from where there used to be houses, and up the street from the apartments in question. She accepts the fact that when the erosion is close to reaching their side of the street, it will be time to go. There is only so much that can be done (and spent) before the inevitable.

I lived in Pacifica throughout my childhood, regularly hiking down the cliff trails to Pacific Manor Beach. In the decades since, so much erosion has occurred that the cliffs longer resemble the terrain that I used to play in.  We can only do so much before realizing that it is a lost cause, and just give it up.

Comment 2
Wed, January 6, 2010 10:35am
Barry Parr
All my comments

I don’t understand how the current process accounts for the collateral damage of coastal armoring:

1. The loss of public property as the armoring causes wave action to remove the beach.

2. The loss of private property as the armoring causes erosion to adjoining bluffs.

This is to say nothing of the cascade effect as armoring leads to more armoring on additional properties.

There’s a growing understanding that people who live in flood plains and barrier islands should not be allowed to use (often public)  insurance money to rebuild on disaster-prone (or even temporary) land. Why shouldn’t this apply to property where (1) erosion is historic and inevitable, (2) other public and private landowners face huge expenses and loss of their own property as a result?

The out-of-pocket cost of armoring doesn’t reflect its true cost.

“There’s a growing understanding that people who live in flood plains and barrier islands should not be allowed to use (often public)  insurance money to rebuild on disaster-prone (or even temporary) land. Why shouldn’t this apply to property where (1) erosion is historic and inevitable, (2) other public and private landowners face huge expenses and loss of their own property as a result?”

Kinda like the $32,000,000,000 (or whatever final figure ended up) JUST to fix the levies in New Orleans post-Katrina, around a KNOWN flood zone before and after. Not to mention hundreds of millions in infrastructure needed for other projects.

Where was the logic then? Guess we couldn’t take Deb’s ideology of “We can only do so much before realizing that it is a lost cause, and just give it up.”. The environmental effects of shoreline erosion, loss of wetlands, pollution from urban areas and agriculture, saltwater intrusion from the Lake Pontchartrain levies built via the Flood Control Act of ‘65.

Hurricane Betsey flooded New Orleans, then Katrina… and in the future once again by _______. I guess you can pick and choose approaches based on political preferences vs. pragmatism (nee environmental science vs. socio-economic… or ‘sticking it to Bush’).

You may be right. Besides, it would be impossible to “stick it to Bush” sufficiently to fulfill his karmic destiny over New Orleans.

However, New Orleans holds a unique place in our cultural heritage, which is one reason it might be worth preserving. It was also a victim of federal misfeasance both in maintenance of its levees and the response to the disaster.

Also, abandoning entire cities is a completely different thing from abandoning apartment buildings or even towns built in the wrong place.

But the way things are going, New Orleans may ultimately be a drowned city.

Regarding coastal properties, we have a decent policy for new development, i.e., require developers to consider bluff erosion in their designs and proscribe future bluff armoring to protect those properties. In other words, make the developers aware of the risk and make sure that they assume all that risk.

As for existing properties in which the current policy cannot be imposed, mother nature will eventually have the final say. We don’t need to impose new constraints on those property owners. Eventually, they will run out of money or recognize they’re fighting a losing battle.

As for our policy for New Orleans, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be reconsidered. I for one favor rebuilding the city at another location.

Comment 6
Tue, January 19, 2010 5:19am
Cid Young
All my comments

It’s fine to pontificate ... as long as it is not affecting your home. I feel sorry for long time residents who live in a world of terror each time a new storm rolls in or a tremor shakes their property. Let’s face it, we are all imprudent to own or live in the Bay Area because of the seismic damgers we all ignore.

Just look at the devastation in Haiti…......... That could be us next time, but still we stay living in today’s paradise, blissfully ignoring a future earthquake’s potential threat and destruction.