Eroding dreams: How 2023's storms have accelerated threat to coastal NorCal homes

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Saturday, December 23, 2023
2023's storms accelerated coastal erosion threatening NorCal homes
Many coastal homes in Northern California are being threatened by erosion, which experts say has been accelerated by 2023's winter storms.

PACIFICA, Calif. (KGO) -- Joan Levin is getting ready to move out of a historic oceanfront home in Pacifica because of a threat that creeps closer every day - coastal erosion.

"For over 45 years, I was able to maintain it," Levin said. "We had ravine erosion and now we have the bluff erosion so it will take a lot of money to make some final decisions on preserving this building."

And Levin isn't alone.

That is just one of many homes in Northern California that's just feet from the beach with amazing ocean views. But it's prime land that's disappearing.

A recent study by the US Geological Survey projects up to 75 percent of California's beaches could become completely eroded by the end of the century.

"We'll just see a lot fewer, wider beaches, and we'll see a lot more narrow beaches where the water is right up against the cliff," said Sean Vitousek, research oceanographer at the USGS based in Santa Cruz. "Areas where once we had large beaches, they're now almost gone."

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It was a dream home for Levin and her then-husband, who bought the property in 1977.

"The spaces are so open," Levin said. "And then you get the magnificent view of the ocean. Whoever comes here is always impressed, not just only me."

The property once housed Dollaradio, the first radio communication tower for ships in the Pacific dating back to the 1920's.

Levin went to the home with its fresh ocean air and natural beauty to heal after the death of her 2-year-old boy.

But her dream home started to become a nightmare around 2010 when the cliff started eroding.

ABC7 News captured footage then as crews drilled more than twenty 50-foot deep holes, dropping in reinforced steel to buy time.

"It was shocking to me to see the significant amount of Earth that fell into the ocean," Levin said. "There would be huge clumps, up to five feet. That's a lot of feet."

The erosion got even worse with the 2023 winter storms. They put up tarps. Since 1977, the home has lost quite a bit of bluff, about the size of a football field. This deck used to be twice the size. And how long the home will still stand there is unclear.

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"I think it is unlikely the Dollaradio would be here in six to 10 years," said Corey Crellin, who is working on a documentary about Dollaradio. "It's possible but I'd say unlikely due to the known rate of erosion and what the past few years have looked like... Back in the old footage, the deck went way out... There was stairs down and then the bluff just kept going and gardens and pathways."

Crellin is also researching preserving Dollaradio. But he realizes it'll be an uphill battle.

"Of all the erosion I've seen in the past five years, I would estimate probably 80% of it happened this winter," Crellin said, of the 2023 winter.

In Santa Cruz, the iconic coastal road, West Cliff Drive, buckled near Woodrow Avenue during January's storms.

"I would say this is definitely the worst I've seen in my 55 years here," said University of California Santa Cruz Professor and geologist Gary Griggs, who has been tracking coastal erosion on the Northern California coast.

"We had a combination of very high tides and very large waves that came at the same time on the morning of January 5 of this year along with strong onshore winds, so the waves overtop the cliffs here washed some of the protective rip rap into the water and then they started attacking the asphalt... so we had a number of places where the road was partially lost, the sidewalk that we're standing on," Griggs said.

Griggs said most of California's coastal development came after World War II, from 1945 until 1978, during a calm climate period with fewer storms and rainfall.

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"We subdivided the cliffs and the beaches and the dunes and built in those areas during a calm period," Griggs said.

"But the climate changed in 1978. And from there on through the next 20 years, we had these big storms and big waves and more rainfall and everybody went whoa, what's happening because we weren't used to that and then we went into a calm period and now we're in a stormier period... There is nothing we can do to hold back the Pacific Ocean... So trying to stop it is going to be temporary."

But to try to slow down erosion, Sean Vitousek of the USGS, said there are some options: coastal armoring such as concrete sea walls to prevent flooding, rebuilding beaches and sea dunes or managed retreat.

"Managed retreat is basically infrastructure that is sort of critically threatened by eroding beaches, by cliff failures, and by increased coastal flood areas, basically relocating those places inland," Vitousek said.

USGS research shows climate change can lead to accelerated erosion.

As for Levin, her dream for this home is slowly eroding, like the bluff.

She invested at least $200,000 into the home, as the cliff started to crumble.

The high costs prompted her to sell the property. The court allowed her to stay there temporarily.

Now, the 84-year-old must leave. And she's ready to move on.

"I think it's about time," she said.

Levin hopes the new owners will preserve the history of Dollaradio.

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