The West Cliff Drive we know today — Santa Cruz’s “front porch,” a surfing mecca and the site for a procession of multimillion-dollar homes/objects of envy that represent the Sunset magazine ideal of the California Good Life — is a shockingly recent development. Coastline erosion has been an ongoing constant, consistent over decades and centuries — but now we humans are adding a new wrinkle: climate change.
Is there a more fundamental and intractable law of nature than erosion?
Given enough time — whether it’s water upon land, the force of gravity and aging upon the body, or human vanity and weakness upon political and legal systems — irresistible forces will always take away, piece by piece, what we hope to preserve. Order and harmony are always temporary states. Stability is a relative term. Entropy wins in the end.
Those of us who enjoy Santa Cruz’s picturesque West Cliff Drive were reminded of this hard truth recently when a small section of West Cliff’s bike/pedestrian path surrendered to erosion and collapsed, leaving behind a jagged edge falling away into chaos. Call it Mother Nature clearing her throat.
When I heard about the incident, my first impulse was to reach out to Gary Griggs, UC Santa Cruz’s distinguished professor of earth & planetary sciences, who as a scientist and writer has been exploring the dynamics of California’s ever-changing coastline most of his professional life. Of course, asking Gary Griggs about coastal erosion in California is like asking Tom Brady about NFL defenses. You’re not sure where to even start the conversation, but once you do, you begin to see things you didn’t see before.
If you’re like me and have been walking and/or biking along West Cliff Drive for decades, you might be in the habit of seeing it as a kind of durable sanctuary against capricious change, a reliably breathtaking platform from which to commune with the eternal rhythms of the sea in contrast to the ever-shifting and often disconcerting churn of human endeavors on land. But that’s an illusion. As Gary would be the first to tell you, the county’s coastline, and especially West Cliff Drive, is in a state of constant change, thanks to the implacable progress of erosion.
To live along the coast of California without at least a rudimentary understanding of geology is to live in a state of almost childlike naïveté. (Gov. Newsom could improve that situation by adopting my proposal to buy a copy of Gary’s book “Introduction to California’s Beaches and Coast” to everyone living within a half-hour’s drive of the coastline. Do the right thing, Gavin).
There’s another book that Griggs wrote in 2006, this one co-authored with his wife, Deepika Shrestha Ross, called “Santa Cruz Coast” that is even more on point when it comes to West Cliff. Using then-and-now comparative photographs, the book shows natural structures along West Cliff Drive that existed a century ago that do not exist today.
“We tried to go back and stand as close as we could to the same place to see how it’s changed,” Gary told me. “Arches have come and gone. Natural Bridges used to be three, and then two, and then just one left. And you can see places where they just dumped slabs of concrete on the beach before we had a coastal commission. And before we had engineers [working on the problem].”
Knowing a bit about the geology of erosion can even change your view of your home region. For example, the weirdly symmetrical stingray-like shape of Monterey Bay is simply a result of erosion acting on land formations more vulnerable than the more durable formations to the north and south of it.
That phenomenon might, in fact, start on West Cliff Drive. The bluffs and cliffs that make up West Cliff come from two separate formations. The first, on the far west end of West Cliff, is the more durable Santa Cruz mudstone that characterizes most of the coast south of San Francisco. It is on West Cliff, right near Mitchell’s Cove, where that harder mudstone gives way to the more vulnerable material known as the Purisima formation. And, yes, the piece of sidewalk that collapsed was within that Purisima zone.
The West Cliff that we know today — Santa Cruz’s “front porch,” a surfing mecca and the site for a procession of multimillion-dollar homes/objects of envy that represent the Sunset magazine ideal of the California Good Life — is a shockingly recent development. A little over a century ago — itself a time span that’s barely a heartbeat in the long battle between the ocean and the coastline — West Cliff was a dirt wagon road with nary a house (or a tree) in sight.
That we’ve already seen drastic changes in the coastline at West Cliff in the short time it’s been developed suggests that the erosive forces of the ocean will continue to push on, utterly heedless of management plans, real-estate values or surf breaks. At the heart of the city of Santa Cruz’s plan to deal with inevitable erosion is what’s known as “managed retreat,” which is bureaucrat-ese for, “Folks, the ocean ain’t negotiatin’.”
Yet if coastline erosion is an ongoing constant, consistent over decades and centuries, we humans are adding a new wrinkle. The widespread climate change resulting from the burning of fossil fuels and other man-made causes is leading to a rise in sea levels around the world. Suddenly a process that was already eating away at the coast has been given a powerful and unpredictable wild card. If you somehow get a kick out of apocalyptic anxiety, check out this thrill ride of an animation, showing the possible effects of sea-level rise on Main Beach in Santa Cruz.
It all paints a bleak picture of the future, except perhaps for marine life excited for new soon-to-be-underwater real estate to populate. As a rule, Santa Cruzans love the ocean like they love their adult children — their devotion is real, but they’d rather not have to share their house with it.
A report prepared for the city in 2020 on adapting possible sea level rise of up to 2 feet specifically in relation to West Cliff recommended — surprise, surprise — that inaction is not good. “There is almost no chance that the business-as-usual approach will yield a positive net present value,” said the report. Or, as my dad used to put it, “Well, don’t not do nuthin’.”
So the city will embark on a $20 million development plan to shore up West Cliff Drive with ambitious mitigations like “coastal armoring” and revetments designed to maintain the status quo, at least for a few more decades. Still, the specter of “managed retreat” hangs over the project which could mean, to quote the plan, to “prioritize moving assets and development over time when they are threatened.” Anybody got a spot in their yard for the surfer statue?
“This is going to affect West Cliff, the coast of California, and the coastlines around the world,” Griggs said of sea-level rise. “In the long run, there is nothing we can do to hold back the Pacific Ocean. So we’re buying time.”
How much time? It all depends. Gary pointed to the massive sea wall near Ocean Beach in San Francisco that was built in 1928 and is still holding up nearly 100 years later. Other mitigations in other spots along the coast were barely worth the expense and effort to construct.
“There’s a lot of local variability in terms of what you could do, or what might work,” he said, “and why some things have lasted for almost 100 years, and some things haven’t lasted for two months.”