Jan Sovich of Ventura climbs up to the crumbling asphalt at Surfers Point.… (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times )
At Surfers Point in Ventura, California is beginning its retreat from the ocean.
Construction crews are removing a crumbling bike path, ripping out a 120-space parking lot and laying down sand and cobblestones. By pushing the asphalt 65 feet inland, the project is expected to give the wave-ravaged point 50 more years of life.
The effort by the city of Ventura is the most vivid example to date of what may lie ahead in California as coastal communities come to grips with rising sea levels and worsening coastal erosion. As the coastline creeps inland, scouring sand from beaches or eating away at coastal bluffs, landowners will increasingly be forced to decide whether to spend vast sums of money fortifying the shore or give up and step back.
State officials say the $4.5-million project in Ventura is the first of its kind in California and could serve as a model for threatened sites along the coast.
"Managed retreat, as it's called, is one of the things that we're going to have in our quiver to deal with sea-level rise and increasing storms," said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy, which helped fund the Surfers Point project.
Sea levels have risen about 8 inches in the last century and are expected to swell at an increasing rate as climate change warms the ocean, experts say. In California, the sea is projected to rise as much as 55 inches by the end of the century and gobble up 41 square miles of coastal land, according to a 2009 state-commissioned report by the Pacific Institute.
For years, the preferred solution to an eroding shoreline has been to build sea walls or dump imported sand to serve as a buffer. About one-third of the Southern California coastline and about 10% of the shore statewide have been fortified with sea walls and other hard structures.
Although artificial barriers may protect property in the short term, they often intensify the effect of waves, leaving beaches stripped of sand until they narrow or disappear, permanently altering surf patterns.
As a result, beach-armoring projects are increasingly out of favor with environmentalists and coastal regulators.
At Surfers Point, Ventura officials first knew they had a problem about two decades ago, when storms started chewing away at the oceanfront bike path a few years after it was built.
When heavy storms hit, waves ate mounds of sand, washed away chunks of asphalt and exposed rebar, car parts and junk that had been underground for decades.
Officials at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which is on a 62-acre site next to Surfers Point, initially suggested a buried sea wall. But environmentalists and surfers fiercely objected, saying that armoring the shore would protect a parking lot at the expense of the beach and destroy the point break near the Ventura River that generates the distinctive, surfer-friendly waves for which the site was named.
After extensive debate, the fairgrounds agreed to give up some of its property for a plan that would provide room for the sand to shift. It is based on the idea that beaches are constantly in flux, growing as the summer's gentle waves bring sand ashore and shrinking when winter storms scour it away.
"It was the right thing to do for all of the residents of the county," said fairgrounds Chief Executive Officer Barbara Quaid, who prefers not to view it as sacrificing land but as redirecting its use. "Coming down to the beach and seeing it beautified is a lot different than coming down and seeing a bike path that's falling into the ocean."
The "managed retreat" marks a reversal with profound implications for a state that has for more than a century crammed its most valuable homes and businesses on the edge of the ocean.
"There's the old-school mentality that when nature threatens you, you fight back," said Paul Jenkin, Ventura campaign manager for the Surfrider Foundation and a longtime advocate for the project. "So this idea of retreating and moving back was really quite a radical proposition."
In the near term, there are a number of publicly owned sites, from a weathered parking lot hugging a narrow strand at Cardiff State Beach in San Diego County to a lifeguard station within a few steps of the surf in San Clemente, where planners might soon have to consider moving structures out of harm's way.
Such a decision would be far tougher for private property owners, but they too could eventually be in the position of giving up billions of dollars of desirable real estate.
"The challenge is we have built most of our civilization within a few feet of sea level or right at the edge," said Gary Griggs, a coastal geologist at UC Santa Cruz who co-wrote the book "Living With the Changing California Coast." "It's either going to be managed or unmanaged, but it's going to be retreat."
Some coastal residences are already faced with similar predicaments.