What could managed retreat mean for Pacifica, California?

Kristen Philipkoski


Photo by Brocken Inaglory.

Home prices have skyrocketed in Pacifica, California, in recent years. But mother nature doesn't care about real estate. Her assault on the coastline is constant, and human attempts to to hold her back with walls and supports ultimately fail. Sea levels are rising, the coastline is shifting, and humans must adapt to the changes.

How that will work is something Cindy Abbot thinks about a lot. She has lived on the California coast her entire life (60+ years), and she is passionate about the ocean and environment. As president of the board of directors for Pacifica's Environmental Family, chair of the Pacifica Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission, and executive director of the Sanchez Art Center, she is actively working on coming up with solutions.

One is called "managed retreat." Many residents, especially homeowners with properties close to the beach who potentially face relocation, are not fans of the idea, to put it mildly. "No Managed Retreat" signs decorate their yards. But in our interview below, Abbot shares her extensive knowledge of the issue's various angles. Fundamentally, the concept is just what its name implies—managing and planning for a way to live with the ocean's inevitable infringement of the coastline.

Kristen Philipkoski: How did you become interested in the subject of managed retreat?

Cindy Abbott: "My interest is not per se on the subject of managed retreat, but on coastal adaptation strategies that are respectful of the natural environment. Born in Santa Monica, CA, I’ve been privileged to live my entire life (+60 years) on the California coast. The ocean and beach have been constants in my life. I recognize that landslides and erosion of California’s coastal bluffs or palisades are a fact of life. The end of the street where I grew up had gates on it that after a major landslide that covered the Pacific Coast Highway were on occasion closed to traffic. Over the years many slides took place in the area, as they do all along the coast. This is a natural process of the bluffs. Mankind has a mindset that through engineering and construction nature can be controlled. This disrupts the natural process and often results in short-term fixes that devastate the natural landscape and ultimately, over time, these projects fail. I’d like to see a shift in mindset from 'controlling' nature to respecting nature. This may at some point require relocating manmade infrastructure.

Following devastating storms in 1983, Pacifica’s beaches have become debris fields as rock revetments and concrete have been installed to hold back the cliffs. Few have worked. Patios, foundations and buildings continue to slide towards the beach and ocean and sinkholes and damage to sewer outflows have occurred. The result is constant projects with heavy machinery trying to construct walls of various types to hold back the cliffs and turning our magnificent natural beaches into construction zones. Most efforts to date have been in response to emergencies versus having a thoughtful long-term strategy. Should we be considering how to update our aged infrastructure, possibly relocating it to a safer place versus spending money to armor the coast? Some of suggested that it’s too soon to be talking about the future – if not now, when? Municipal projects take years and even decades to plan and implement."


(Photo courtesy of Cindy Abbott)

KP: It’s such a triggering subject, what strategies do you use to move the conversation forward?

CA: "The words 'managed retreat' have indeed become charged words. Since at least 2016, there has been a campaign of fear created in the community to even say the words, falsely communicating that if the conversation is part of Pacifica’s long-term planning it will devalue property versus highlighting that thoughtful and thorough planning is being done. More advantageous to Pacifica would be to empower the community with the ability to consider every option available based on different areas and circumstances along the shoreline and develop a criteria for triggers (i.e., frequency of flooding, degree of erosion, storm damage, etc.).

The idea of “managed” – doing something in a coordinated and planned manner – gets lost in the conversation. As does the fact that Pacifica State Beach is a case study in managed retreat and habitat restoration. The “retreat” involved moving only a small number of private structures. There is a good point here though that managed retreat isn’t necessarily a drastic (or immediate) action. And, it might be a small area or specific to aged infrastructure. Lost in the conversation too is other adaptation methods that may be applicable: elevating structures is happening on the East coast and in some circumstances this has reduced insurance premiums; building so that areas are allowed to temporarily flood (Click here for a New York Times article on the Netherlands and how they have changed their mindset from control to living with water; etc.)."

Responsible leadership needs to do what is right for today but to have a vision for the future and what we want our legacy to be.

KP: You're organizing an exhibition at the Sanchez Art Center on the topic of managed retreat, how are you working to make that a success during Covid? What impact do you think it will have? 

CA: "This show is scheduled to open on Friday, February 12, 2021, and will run through March 21. The 'See Change' project came about specifically to remove the fear out conversation about sea level rise and adaptation strategies. Funded by the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability, the large public events that were planned have needed, due to Covid-19, to be re-strategized with smaller gatherings out of doors and via Zoom. The upcoming exhibition provides the opportunity to bring this important subject to the community in a safe way; gallery visits are by appointment to ensure limited number of visitors at a time, installation supports physical distancing, face masks are required, etc. The exhibition will feature the work of local Pacifican and SF Bay Area photographers and other artists along with new words – neologisms – that have been developed via small gatherings to provide a way to communicate about the difficult subject of sea level rise."

KP: How would managed retreat work?

CA: This would depend on the circumstances of each property, piece of infrastructure and area. It would also depend on funding sources that are currently not widely available to take the action proactively versus reactively following a natural disaster (flooding, etc.). The new San Mateo County Flood and Sea Level Rise Resiliency District was recently formed with funding from the cities and county. This may provide opportunities for regional approaches and funding. On the State level, there is pending legislation, SB 1293, to create a loan fund for local governments to purchase properties.

This conversation is taking place not only here in California, but nationally and globally. This article discusses historic perspectives and what is being considered in other places. Here is another interesting overview on the subject including barriers to implementing. If Pacifica isn’t willing to at least discuss this for areas, funding may not be available as other communities respond.

KP: Have some homeowners already moved?

CA: "As noted, a few residences were removed from Pacifica State Beach in the 1990’s. A couple were also removed years back in West Sharp Park. The recent removal of apartments and homes on Esplanade weren’t managed retreat but in response to natural disaster. Those buildings were removed and the area turned into public space."

KP: Is managed retreat less expensive than attempts to control the rising sea?

CA: "Ultimately, it might be, at least for some areas. The up front cost though for moving major infrastructure (i.e., sewer pipes and storm drains, pump stations, etc.) are very high. Managed retreat doesn’t always pertain to housing, see where San Francisco has committed to rerouting the Great Highway by the SF Zoo at Ocean Beach (Sloat and Skyline).

Controlling the rising sea—and responding to increased storm activity—is ongoing, unending work. Maintenance of protective structures (look at the new sinkhole on Beach Blvd and damage to the pier; riprap dumped at the base of cliffs requires ongoing review and replacement) won’t stop and could increase in frequency and need for repair. 'Beach nourishment' dredging or moving sand to replenish beach sand loss requires a constant source of sand and movement of the sand to the depleted area."

Thinking only about today and the impact on one's personal property is, frankly, selfish.

KP: What are homeowners biggest objections to managed retreat?

CA: "I have mostly heard loss of personal property value. Houses in western culture are often the largest asset we have and people work hard for the 'American dream' to purchase and own a home/property. These concerns, while I certainly understand them, are very 'in the moment.' This focus doesn’t consider future generations and how today’s decisions will impact what they will be required to address if we delay in having these important conversations now or take no action.

I recognize that at some point my little beach cottage that I cherish being able to live in may need to be moved or even demolished. I choose to recognize how fortunate I've been to be here now while recognizing the value and importance of planning and working for a sustainable future. (And I include all three pillars of sustainability in this—people, planet and prosperity). Thinking only about today and the impact on one's personal property is, frankly, selfish. Sticking our heads in the sand, thinking that tomorrow is for someone else to deal with is not being a good community member. (Some very vocal voices against having these important discussions have been documented at meetings stating city leadership should only be considering the people that are here today and now.)

When thinking about our obligation to future generations, we need to consider the impact on the natural environment that we are stewards of for future generations. What are alternative solutions today so that we aren't leaving a bigger problem. What natural or less intrusive solutions are possible This may or may not include managed retreat. We need to consider everything. How can we live with the water versus trying to dominate it?

A community member shared this with me: 'I think responsible leadership needs to do what is right for today but to have a vision for the future and what we want our legacy to be.'"

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I'm a veteran writer and editor and founder of Mean Magazine and The Mean Podcast for GenX women. I write about everything from fashion to science and everything in between. I’ve written for Racked, Refinery 29, 7x7, SF Chronicle, Wired, Gizmodo and many others.

Pacifica, CA

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