The eroding coastline paves the way for a “manageable retreat” in California

A few winding bends along Bodega Bay, along misty bluffs and a coastal prairie, relentless waves are in need of huge savings on a crumbling stretch of coastline.

Here, on Gleason Beach, once referred to as Malibu North, the beach drowns at high tide. The pieces of concrete and rebar are all that have survived from the 11 rock houses that have already surrendered to the sea. The cemetery, which is covered with shores and consists of shore pieces, is rubbish.

Highway 1 now hangs inches from what seems to be the edge of the world. For decades, officials have struggled to save the road from the ocean – pouring millions of tax dollars into the vicious cycle of sudden crashes and emergency repairs. Last year, this critical lifebelt for the region was reduced to one lane.

As the reality of climate change approaches, California traffic officials are now moving a stretch of highway more than 350 feet to land – the state’s first major effort to relocate critical “infrastructure” or “manage its retreat” far enough from shore to accommodate the next 100 sea level rises. year.

After more than a decade of ambitious planning, this month’s approved project comes at a time when city and state leaders across California are waking up to the social and economic catastrophes of sea level rise. According to recent legislative reports, at least $ 8 billion of real estate could be under water by 2050, with an additional $ 10 billion at risk during the tide. Heavier storms and more intense El Niño cycles could make matters worse.

Among the goals, led by Gavin Newsom’s governing government, several agencies have agreed that year to prepare California for sea level rise of at least 3.5 meters by 2050.

The painful rethinking of Gleason Beach gives a glimpse into the future for other communities that now face the costs and trade-offs of living by the sea. At the heart of this $ 73 million project is what is worth saving – and what is worth sacrificing – and whether it is possible to redesign a treasure landscape so that it will survive in the future.

“Coping seems to be a big change, but it’s also an opportunity for communities to think: What are the coastal resources we want to access in 50, 100 years?” said Tami Grove, state program manager for the California Coastal Commission. “Sometimes they get lost when people worry about everything we lose because of sea level rise – but there are things we’ll be able to choose, improve, and plan for the future if we start planning now.”

Maintaining this critical section of Highway 1 is a decade-long saga. It is the only evacuation route for many residents, and the only way to reach Sonoma’s many beaches and sweeping sights – the economic and cultural soul of the region.

In photographs from the 1970s, more than 20 blufftop houses and a wide sandy beach buffer the highway from the sea. But in this area, particularly unstable rocks erode on average about 1 foot per year, exacerbated by rising sea levels and sudden landslides.

With most of the homes and beaches already gone, the highway struggled to keep the land-sea border. Since 2004, Caltrans has spent about $ 10 million on emergency protection and failed repairs. The rocks and the beach today are full of remnants of human design.

On Gleason Beach, remnants of homes and sets of broken sea walls stir up the shoreline.

As part of the highway redevelopment, Caltrans has pledged to pay $ 5 million to help clean up all the shattered houses and shores on the beach.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“This is what the uncontrolled retreat looks like, and frankly, the hot mess of septic systems, old house parts, and armor has entered the tidal zone, and there is no real mechanism to clean it up,” said Lynda Hopkins, Sonoma County Superintendent. “If we don’t start planning ahead and taking proactive action, Mother Nature will make decisions for us.”

Caltrans, the Coastal Commission, and county leaders have teamed up to work with agencies that many say are a major coup in government bureaucracy to work out a plan to relocate the 0.7-mile highway – largely with a new 850-foot bridge that spans the Scotty Creek. I. meets the ocean.

The compromise was not easy: Officials looked at more than 20 alternatives that tried to balance safety regulations, traffic needs, fragile habitats, public access to the coast and other competing requirements that were topically tricky to meet – not to mention all the nearby properties and taking a skeptical community on board.

The concrete bridge (a terrible overpass or a reasonable compromise, depending on who is talking) allows the stream to flow freely into the ocean again – providing space for several red-footed frogs, Myrtle silver-spotted butterflies, and the passage of steel-headed trout and Coho salmon. Raising the highway will avoid covering wetlands, officials say, and allow these drowning habitats to migrate to land as the sea rises.

Plaster of the proposed bridge over Scotty Creek that elevates and relocates Highway 1

Machining of the bridge over Scotty Creek, which lifts Main Road 1 to the mainland and reorganizes it to take account of the rise in sea level for the next 100 years.


Caltrans also agreed to pay $ 5 million as part of the project to clean up abandoned homes and failed road repairs. An additional $ 6.5 million will go to the restoration of wetlands, the creek and the prairie. Part of the old highway will be converted into a coastal path, and residents will have access to a new car park and a beach that was once restricted by private property.

Officials have set aside $ 2.7 million to negotiate three private properties and acquire land, including the necessary parts of a nearby homestead, that will be most affected by the redeveloped highway. Once completed, much of the free space will be transferred to Sonoma County to manage on behalf of the public.

Philip and Roberta Ballard, the farm owners, said they understood the need for the project. The bridge still feels too big – especially on this rural paradise section that first grabbed their hearts 21 years ago – but over time, the ballards have turned their energies to recovering Scotty Creek as part of the business.

The Stream, the largest catchment between the Salmon Stream and the Russian River, needs help for years, they said. In addition to the floodplain installed on the highway in 1952 flooding its flow, the lower stream flooded its vegetation.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into getting the most out of something that’s needed,” said Roberta Ballard, who, along with her husband, is an emeritus professor of pediatrics at UC San Francisco. – But the bridge is pretty ugly.

Other residents and trail groups say a giant concrete bridge, no matter what color you paint, will forever change the majesty of Sonoma’s coast, where much of the coastguard movement of the 1960s and 70s was born. Many of their suggestions for a less intrusive solution were ignored.

“Let’s fix the road without ruining that much of the place itself,” said Richard Charter, a longtime resident and senior staff member of the Ocean Foundation. “This will be the largest work of art on Sonoma Beach. It will be visible everywhere and will completely destroy what we thought we had saved on our shores.

Some environmental groups, such as the Surfrider Foundation, supported the guided retreat process, but questioned the small beach in the store to protect the driveway and part of the coastal path.

Stefan Galvez-Abadia, head of environmental planning and engineering at Caltrans District, acknowledged these concerns and said that after many years of seminars and discussions, the abstract concept of adapting to climate change, such as making a managed retreat a reality, was a very complex practice. compromise.

His team is trying to design a nicer bridge that better suits the rural landscape. The arched columns of the Bixby Creek Bridge on the banks of the Big Sur and other man-made landmarks that have become iconic over time have been studied. The project is expected to be discontinued next summer.

As for the minimum options proposed by the residents concerned, many did not meet seismic or safety standards – the bridge had to be high enough for emergency vehicles to pass, officials said, and even in the worst cases. Other proposals, neither in size nor in distance, were sufficient to exceed coastal erosion by 2100.

“You don’t have many choices about rising sea levels … whichever one you choose, you’ll have some impact,” Galvez-Abadia said. “We have to make these difficult decisions as a region, as a community for future generations.”

Gary Griggs, a long-term coastal erosion expert at UC Santa Cruz who studied the future of a manageable retreat in California, said there had been very few case studies so far and was shocked at how much time – and money – there were highway sections on it. necessitates relocation that is not even found in a populated area like Malibu or the Gulf area.

Every successful retirement project becomes more interesting – and much more complicated with compromises, he said. “What’s happening at Gleason Beach is a good example of action and another step forward.”

On Highway 1, Stavan Cook recalled the bluffed vacation home in which he grew up. In the old pictures, the house was visible with a 20-meter courtyard and stairs leading to the beach.

His father, an architect, made some additions over the years as the rock continued to deteriorate. His family tried to put up the sea wall. But after the devastating storm of 1997, they finally decided to handle their own retreat: plugging up their houses and moving them to new land.

Cook, a locksmith at Bodega Coast Lock and Key, relies on this coastal highway that connects his entire community and passes every day on the crumbling plot where his home once looked out to sea.

“I’ve seen the rock deteriorate all my life,” he said. “We need to do something, and if putting the bridge in is what’s needed, well, that’s what it’s needed.”