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The state of California has 1,200 miles of heavily populated coastline that is casually slipping into the sea. 

Rosanna Xia, an environment reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has been writing for years about all of the ways erosion along this border between ocean and land imperils people and places on a day-to-day basis. Now she has written a book about what’s on the horizon for this slow rolling disaster and what it means for California’s very notion of itself: California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline.

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We caught up with Xia to ask about the dynamism of the California coastline and which stories and approaches to protecting it give her the most hope. 

What made you want to write a book about the California coastline? 

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For years, I’ve been writing these daily stories about the existential crisis that is sea level rise for dozens of communities up and down the California coast. I wanted to take a longer-term view. A mega study by the U.S. Geological Survey from a couple of years ago projected that Southern California could lose more than two thirds of all its beaches by the end of the century if we continue business as usual. Another study showed wetlands could go extinct on the West Coast by the end of the century. 

We have imposed permanence onto a space that is inherently impermanent.

I hear the term slow moving disaster a lot in the sea level rise planning space: you can’t stand on the beach for one day and look at the ocean and really feel the looming disaster. Wildfires and drought are more immediately gripping effects of climate change in California. As a storyteller, I really started to think about how to tell this more cohesive story about sea level rise in California. 

How did your relationship to the coast change in the process of writing this book? 

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Often, when I talk to people about the coast, about sea level rise, there is this underlying assumption that the coast itself is static—that it doesn’t move. I was guilty of this, too, when I first moved to California. I thought of the beach as a place to go to. But if you look around at all the ways we’ve built out our shoreline, we have basically imposed permanence onto a space that is inherently impermanent. We’ve truly fixed lines in the sand rather than see the coast for what it is—not so much a place as a process.  

We have paved over this process in many places. More than 90 percent of our coastal wetlands in California have been altered or destroyed: turned into neighborhoods and filled in for entire communities or drained and readjusted to become marinas. We’ve lost sight of these really cool intertidal spaces that represent a beautiful marriage between land and ocean.

How will the culture of coastal California have to shift in the future?

When I first started writing about this issue many years ago, it really was easily dismissed as something only rich people who owned homes on the beach had to care about. But I think everyone in California has some form of a connection to the beach. 

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We talk a lot about cost: It costs a lot to build a seawall to protect a home or critical infrastructure. It costs a lot to relocate property, or to completely reconfigure a landscape so that we respond to the rising oceans. But there are also other sacrifices that go beyond the monetary cost: What are we willing to sacrifice from an ecosystem perspective? What are we willing to sacrifice from a public access perspective? What are we willing to sacrifice from an equity perspective? I wanted to explore these less tangible costs and sacrifices that come with the decisions we’re making today.

Southern California could lose more than two thirds of all its beaches by the end of the century.

Is there a story from your reporting that sticks with you—that you haven’t been able to get out of your mind?

I met Tina and Jessa Calderon, who are Tongva and Chumash, when I was in Crystal Cove tagging along with a number of Indigenous community leaders. As everyone else was boarding the boat, I noticed that Tina and Jessa did something before they got on board. When I asked them later, Tina said: I was asking for permission to enter the water. It’s kind of like knocking on your grandmother’s door. If you believe the ocean itself has a spirit that should be respected, it changes how we talk about it. I have been thinking a lot about how to bring Indigenous knowledge into these conversations about sea level rise in a way that doesn’t feel in conflict with western science.

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Your book offers several examples of communities who are successfully adapting to their changing coastlines. Which ones stand out to you? 

The term managed retreat [which means a planned movement back from a rising sea] is intensely controversial in this space, as it triggers emotions that feel like surrender and failure. 

The book dives into the story of Marina, California. It’s this little town along Monterey Bay between Monterey and Santa Cruz. There, the community was not resistant to the idea of managed retreat: For them, it just means marching in a different direction rather than surrendering. So they built their planning methods to identify the places that might need to relocate at some point in the future. And they used a triggered approach—not pegged to a timeframe, but to environmental factors: For example, if the parking lot were to flood X amount of times per year, it’s going to kickstart a conversation on moving it or devoting emergency funds to fixing it. So again, it’s not about a one-time action, but something that will require incremental steps that aren’t scary. This kind of planned, phased approach won’t work everywhere, but it could be a really interesting framework for other communities to study and consider for themselves as well.

I’ve also been inspired by the various efforts across the state to build so-called “living shorelines.” In Malibu along Point Dume, for example, a team of scientists and conservationists have been experimenting with the possibility of reviving sand dunes along the back of the beach, which could provide a more sustainable buffer from storm surges than a seawall would. Efforts to restore wetlands along the shores of Alviso, as well as along other critical parts of San Francisco Bay, are also tapping into this notion of leveraging nature’s existing systems as coastal protection. The catch here is that these nature-based solutions take time—and we are running out of time—so there is an increasing urgency to start working on these solutions now, not later.

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Lead image: Elein K / Shutterstock

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