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Recent bluff collapses in San Diego have sparked conversations about public safety on beaches. Bluff erosion — even catastrophic bluff collapse — is a natural process that has been occurring in San Diego for thousands of years. This process is not “unsafe” on its own, but becomes dangerous when we as a community fail to plan for it or plan for it very poorly.
In 2021, Senate Bill 1090 will be reintroduced in the California Legislature. The bill would fast-track seawall development in San Diego and Orange counties and justify any seawall that claims to protect against bluff erosion, with few exceptions, even though it is well known that seawalls destroy the public beaches that Californians cherish.
Seawalls are falsely offered as an easy option for preventing bluff collapse. The California Coastal Commission, which studies and oversees seawalls and other coastal development, has explicitly stated that seawalls do not provide any quantifiable public safety benefit. Worse, seawalls accelerate beach erosion and set an artificial back to the beach. As sea levels continue to rise, seawalls will make California beaches ever narrower, forcing beachgoers closer to the bluffs.
In a letter to the editor, Sen. Patricia Bates argues that SB 1090 is justified because seawalls and other practices will supposedly improve public safety by preventing bluff collapses. SB 1090 does include alternative erosion control methods to seawalls, such as planting native vegetation; however, measures like these will not prevent the kind of catastrophic bluff failures that the bill attempts to address.
The motivation behind the seawall bill is apparent, as these artificial structures are almost always erected to benefit the relatively small number of coastal homeowners who can afford blufftop homes, even if coastal armoring destroys Californian’s legally protected right to access the beach.
Bates laments that too much attention has been put on SB 1090’s seawall policies, which impede the Coastal Act by grandfathering in development that has previously been prohibited from building seawalls. The bill also severely scales back mitigation that would compensate the public for the damaging impacts that seawalls have on beaches.
Instead of fast-tracking seawalls, Bates should focus on smart adaptation solutions. A good erosion response plan includes giving the bluffs space from development so that they can continue to erode naturally and replenish wider, safer beaches.
As we prepare for a changing climate, resorting to seawalls will trade the public beach for privatized benefit.
Laura Walsh resides in Ocean Beach and is the policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego County chapter.