Quick Take:

As last winter made clear all over Santa Cruz County, nothing is permanent when confronted with the power of the Pacific. In “California Against the Sea,” Los Angeles Times journalist Rosanna Xia examines the postwar coastal development boom and the daunting challenges facing the 27 million Californians who live in the coastal zone as sea-level rise and coastal erosion become urgent facts of life. She’ll talk about it Tuesday at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

It was early one morning when the tiny spaceship — no bigger than a Chevy Bolt — landed in a clear spot at Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz. The little green aliens on board had questions, and I was the only one around to ask.

“So, let me get this straight,” said one of them — don’t ask me how they knew English; maybe Duolingo is more popular than I realized. “That coastline out there,” a bony finger gestured out toward West Cliff Drive, “that’s not only where two titanic continental plates are continually grinding against each other, but it’s also where the largest ocean on your planet has been slamming into and eating away at your fragile sandy land for millions of years? And that is where you folks have decided to build your most desirable and expensive ‘permanent’ structures?”

“Wow,” I said. “You guys know air quotes too? Impressive. Uh, that’s about the size of it, yeah.”

The little green being scratched its chin. “OK, second question. Is there any actually intelligent life on this planet?”

OK, so I won’t swear under oath that the close encounter at Lighthouse Field actually occurred. But it’s hard to argue with our imaginary friend’s point. Rising sea levels and more powerful and unpredictable storm patterns are exposing the potential catastrophe that underlies perhaps the most durable vision of the California Dream. Living next to the ocean — at least in the way Californians have been accustomed to, for more than a century — is fast becoming unsustainable.

Los Angeles Times journalist Rosanna Xia and the cover of her new book,
Los Angeles Times journalist Rosanna Xia (right) will discuss her new book, “California Against the Sea,” on Tuesday at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Credit: Via Bookshop Santa Cruz

In her vivid and comprehensive new book “California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline” (Heyday), Los Angeles Times journalist Rosanna Xia characterizes the postwar decades, when development along the California coast boomed and real-estate prices for beachside properties shot into the stratosphere, as “a deceptive endless summer,” evoking the overripe romanticism of The Beach Boys.

On Tuesday, Xia will be on hand with UC Santa Cruz earth and planetary sciences professor Gary Griggs and UC Santa Barbara oceanographer Charles Lester at Bookshop Santa Cruz. The conversation will touch on the daunting challenges likely facing the 27 million Californians who live in the coastal zone, including just about everyone who lives in Santa Cruz County. And it will address the way forward, both attitudes and actions Californians need to take to coexist with the uncompromising ocean.

“California Against the Sea” makes the case that much of the development along the coast in California happened to coincide with a calmer-than-usual period in the long-range climate cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. That period created the conditions to lull Californians into believing that they could build right up to the water’s edge without consequence. But the 21st century could be when the California Dream turns into an alarming wake-up call.

“I hate the term ‘wake-up call,’” said Xia, “because we’ve already had so many wake-up calls. But I do feel this shift in people’s awakening to this issue.” She points to Santa Cruz as a community that is beginning to address the stark realities of what sea-level rise and coastal erosion might look like in the coming decades.

“A lot of communities are resistant to even opening this conversation because they’re afraid or anxious about where that conversation might go,” she said. “And I am asking readers and people to just have courage to start those conversations, because it will be even more devastating if we wait until the disaster hits.”

Santa Cruz County — and its most prominent voice on this issue, marine geologist Gary Griggs — features prominently in “California Against the Sea.” The book’s second chapter, in fact, lands in Capitola, where Xia tours the coast with Griggs and writes in depth about his life’s work. That chapter also served as the book’s excerpt when it was featured on the front page of the L.A. Times in August.

Capitola Wharf was missing a large section on Thursday, January 5.
Storm surge Jan. 5 destroyed a section of the Capitola wharf. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“He’s one of the most renowned coastal geologists in the country,” Xia said of Griggs. “A lot of the coastal scientists that I talked to point to Gary as a huge reason why they’re even in that space. He truly is the grandfather of coastal science in California in a lot of ways. And the conversations that are happening in Santa Cruz, and Gary’s place in that conversation made Santa Cruz a really great place to start with the book.”

Xia’s tour of the shoreline near Capitola with Griggs took place in March 2020, just days before the sudden COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. That means that the devastating winter of 2023 — when ferocious storms crippled Capitola Village and Seacliff Beach, and caused dramatic damage to West Cliff Drive — had almost no role in the book. Publishing schedules being what they are, Xia’s book was pretty much done at the time the winter storms did their worst.

old mill estates mobile home park
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“The manuscript had already been set and we were already in production,” Xia said, “Then the January storms, and the back-to-back-to-back atmospheric rivers, the huge wave events, the swells, all the flooding, all that happened after the book had already been set in page design.”

As a result, the book now looks especially prescient (the book’s cover also features an image of the colorful Capitola Venetian Hotel). In fact, in 2020, just days before an entirely different calamity disrupted the world, Xia and Griggs were discussing possible catastrophic change on the California coast. “We’re both just standing there thinking all of this is likely going to have to change sometime in the future,” Xia said. “But I don’t think either of us thought that that point in the future would actually be January of 2023.”

“California Against the Sea,” of course, isn’t concerned with solely Santa Cruz County. It visits other localities throughout the Bay Area, such as San Francisco, Pacifica, Bodega Bay and Oakland, and in Southern California, such as Laguna Beach, Malibu and Imperial Beach. The point of all that travel up and down the coast of California is to underline how each community is different in its geography and different in its experience of coastal erosion.

Before heading up UCSB’s Ocean and Coastal Policy Center, Charles Lester was the executive director of the California Coastal Commission, the state agency that manages development along the coast. “There’s a creative tension,” said Lester, “in California between the need for state-level statewide guidance and direction on how to respond and the need for locally crafted solutions that are more responsive to local context.”

In her book, Xia wanted to both illustrate the problems and challenges and outline how localities, in compliance with the Coastal Commission, are dealing with those challenges. The buzz phrase of the moment is “managed retreat,” the strategy to adapt to coastal change through restrictions on building or developing in the coastal zone. And the city of Santa Cruz is among the communities addressing the concept.

“Managed retreat absolutely needs a rebrand,” said Xia. “It’s a term that triggers a lot of emotional responses. If you talk to the social scientists, they’ll tell you that ‘retreat’ implies failure. And in the American psyche, you don’t retreat from something. You hold your ground. And these war analogies are ever present in the way we talk about climate change in general. I mean, we’re ‘battling’ the ocean. When we build sea walls and hardened infrastructure, we call it coastal ‘armoring.’ We always evoke these warlike images when we talk about our relationship to nature.

“Ultimately, managed retreat is just acknowledging that the ocean is moving inland, whether we like it or not, and that we need to move homes and roads and other critical infrastructure out of the way before it’s too late. And this will happen regardless of whether we manage it or not.”

If the ocean and its effect on the coastline represent one implacable force, another relentless force on the opposite side of this issue is California’s real-estate interests, or, even more profoundly, the deep-seated desires of millions of Californians to live as close as possible to the sea. People who own property on the coast and those who do not might have fundamentally different responses to the challenge. But, while writing her book, Xia developed empathy for homeowners reluctant to make sacrifices in their vision of paradise. Though she said that the crux of the challenge before Californians is the misguided notion to “impose permanence in a space that is meant to be impermanent and always moving,” she also acknowledges how difficult it can be to accept that geological reality. And that coastal erosion is not a problem for only those with beachfront property.

“It can be easy to vilify a property owner who wants to hold on to their slice of paradise forever,” she said, “and I think that at the beginning, years ago, when I started covering this issue, it really did feel like a lot of folks dismissed it as like a rich-people problem, and something that is not necessarily their problem. But in California, we made a philosophical stand in the 1970s with the California Coastal Act, that the beach belongs to everyone, that everyone has a right to this public space. And every person I talk to — it starts with, ‘Are you worried about sea-level rise?’ And they’re like, ‘No, I don’t own property’ or, ‘It’s not my problem.’ But then, you ask, ‘Do you have a favorite beach? Do you want that beach to still be there 20 years from now?’ If you do, then you have a stake in this issue.”

Rosanna Xia, author of “California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline” will be in conversation with Gary Griggs and Charles Lester at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday. The event begins at 7 p.m. It’s free.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...