Is It Time for San Francisco to Declare Defeat in Its Battle With the Pacific?

Enviros say the city's ambitious and eminently sensible plan to stop fighting the ocean must be implemented.

San Francisco’s Great Highway, shown in a 1957 postcard. (Photo: Getty Images)

Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

In a future in which sea levels are expected to rise some three to four feet by the end of the century, San Francisco is in a precarious position—the city is surrounded by water on three sides. Its Pacific face is battered by winter storms and swells that scrape those sandy western fringes, chewing up the coastal road’s southernmost stretch, called the Great Highway. The ocean has slowly, relentlessly clawed at this byway since it was first fully paved in the late 1920s. For nearly a century the city has taken all sorts of approaches to defending its wild border from the Pacific—sea walls, man-made dunes, even gigantic piles of repurposed tombstones fashioned into crude revetments.

Two years ago this month an ambitious interagency document presented a grand vision, the Ocean Beach Master Plan, which outlined an ambitious path backward. The city would no longer continue the Sisyphean tasks of “holding the line” and armoring itself against the rising tides. Instead it would adopt “managed retreat.” The Great Highway would be moved far inland in the area most affected and narrowed from four lanes to two, allowing dunes to shift, reestablish, and provide natural protection. Along the way, the plan calls for an array of coastal ecosystem restoration (two threatened species make their home on this 3.5-mile stretch of beach) and infrastructure improvements to facilitate and encourage public access. It’s a redesign that would dramatically change the western edge of the city. More significantly, some say it could also serve as a compelling case study for other coastal communities teetering on the edge.

But the plan has no regulatory teeth. Mark Massara, a longtime Ocean Beach resident and one of the state’s leading coastal environmental lawyers, has brought suit on behalf of the Coastal Protection Network to hold the city to hard dates for key aspects of the master plan. “The city has never done anything lawful to move forward” with the plan, Massara said.

The Master Plan’s rational response to coastal erosion and rising sea levels—pull back infrastructure and development—is quite groundbreaking. Like a child insisting on building a sand castle in the same spot where it stood before the tide washed it away, coastal municipalities large and small have long thumbed their noses at the sea (much as we allow those living in flood plains or beside seasonally parched forests to do). But with mounting evidence that the rapid changes to our environment are a domestic issue, a sense of urgency is beginning to build. All eyes are on the solutions that San Francisco develops and the pace with which it implements them.

“We built infrastructure a little too close to the waves, and for us to have any kind of beach, a certain amount of that infrastructure has to be moved out of the way—unless we want to go the route of the East Coast [by trying to] endlessly replenish and try to fill in the ocean,” said Bill McLaughlin of Surfrider Foundation’s San Francisco chapter, the author of a study on the human-hastened erosion of Ocean Beach.

“Things cannot stay the same,” said Ben Grant, urban design program manager with SPUR and the lead author of the Master Plan. “The ocean is going to have something to say about that.” Grant and his collaborators embarked on what was essentially an exercise in enthusiasm and an expression of inspiring possibility. To turn these recommendations into funded projects requires a series of environmental reviews for compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, as well as a wholesale revision of the Local Coastal Program, which San Francisco hasn’t updated since the 1980s.

For decades, Massara has been advocating in the courts and in public forums for protection of San Francisco’s coastal resources. He hasn’t seen much change in all those years and remains skeptical.

“In San Francisco, when the police have a bomb that they need to blow up that they’ve found in people’s houses, you know where they take it?” he asked. “They take it to Ocean Beach. It’s an unbelievable dynamic that would not be acceptable anywhere else in California. This is a National Park, and the city treats it like a dump.”

Grant acknowledged that the road ahead is long. “We’re going from this big visioning project that was the Ocean Beach Master Plan—a 30,000-foot, long-range vision—to more implementable projects on the ground, which means going through the technical processes of doing the analysis and the environmental review, permitting, and then the capital planning and funding efforts,” he said. “We’re now going into a critical step from something that could just sit on a shelf into the actual mechanics of implementation.”

San Francisco has an opportunity to become a model of turning away from the reactive emergency framework of coastal response and toward the kind of adaptive, proactive management framework needed in the face of the projected effects of climate change.

“This is a new kind of planning—adaption planning,” said Grant. “It’s something that we’re all going to have to do a lot of. Our institutions and ways of thinking about these problems are struggling to keep up with the reality. As things are changing, we need to get all the players to the table and adapt incrementally. Climate change will proceed at its own pace.”

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