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Coasts Under Siege

September 15, 1987

The nation's coastlines are being battered from both sides. From inland comes developmental pressure that grows virtually by the minute. From offshore comes an even more inevitable force, the incessant wave action that is constantly remaking the American coasts. The natural force of the oceans cannot be altered. The developmental force from within must be.

The state of the nation's beaches and coasts has received unusual attention this summer in the national media. To a large degree the reports have focused, with some measure of surprise and alarm, on the problem of erosion battering the coastlines and undercutting ocean-bluff homes and washing away beaches. The implication seems to be that something must be done about this.

With public recreational beaches something can be done, and generally should be done if corrective action is affordable. Beaches can be restored through the importation of sand and sometimes by the building of barriers that inhibit erosion. Often, however, such barriers result only in the erosion of the next beach down the coast.

As for houses that go tumbling into the waves after bluffs have been undercut by erosion, there is one simple answer: Don't build there. North Carolina perhaps has pioneered in this area of good sense. The state requires that new construction be set back at least 30 times the annual erosion rate. Still, that is only a temporary measure. "Eventually the ocean's going to catch up with them," Todd Miller, a North Carolina coastal expert, told USA Today.

In California, unfortunately, forces are at work that would take authority away from the state's coastal conservation agency at a time when more, not less, protection is needed. Los Angeles County supervisors have considered joining a lawsuit that would seek to strip away about one-third of the five-mile-wide protected area of the Malibu coast. A successful lawsuit would open the way to widespread and concentrated development in the hills and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains adjacent to the ocean. It is understandable that the landowners would seek such action to enhance their investments, but it is unconscionable that elected county officials should vote for greater economic exploitation over the public's interest in a rationally planned coastal zone.

Unless public officials draw the line now against new developmental pressures, the coastline will be overwhelmed and effectively destroyed as a natural environment. Consider the fact that 80% of all Californians now live within one hour's drive of the coast. Nationally, the figure is 65%, but is expected to rise to 80% by the end of the century. If coastal protection is relaxed rather than strengthened, that hour's drive might not be worth it.

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