The Dam Nobody Wants Just Won’t Go Away

Ventura, Calif.—It’s a flawless sunny day in Ventura, California. In the coastal city, north of Los Angeles, surfers bob on boards watching the swells for the ideal wave. If you want a long ride, here at Surfers’ Point, where the Ventura River meets the ocean, is the place you want to be. It’s a classic California point break that creates waves surfers gravitate to up and the down the coast.

It’s a favorite spot for Paul Jenkin, who’s been surfing this break for over 30 years. But today he’s not here waiting for the perfect wave; he’s waiting for a better beach—or at least the beach that used to be here.

Jenkin is the campaign coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on the protection and enhancement of the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. For 20 years he’s been working to restore the natural supply of sand and gravel to this cobbled beach that’s seen its parking lot and bike path crumble into the ocean. He says one of the concerns at Surfrider is that with sea level rise, recreational beaches are going to disappear. “We’re going to lose our surf spots and lose a place just to put a towel down on the sand.”

Rising sea levels along with coastal development are some of the threats to Surfers’ Point, but the real culprit is some 16 miles away in a mountain canyon far above the city—the Matilija Dam.

Matilija Dam

Matilija Dam was built in 1947, driven by farmers and ranchers in the nearby Ojai Valley, who wanted it for flood control and water supply. Peter Sheydeyi, deputy director of Ventura County Watershed Protection District, the agency that owns the dam, says Matilija originally had 7,000 acre-feet of storage. But over the last 70 years it has completely filled with sediment—some 8 million cubic yards of sand and gravel—enough to fill 800,000 dump trucks—that no longer flows to the beach.

Matilija Reservoir has filled with sediment, allowing grasses to grow on its surface. (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

Matilija Dam had bad juju right from the start. The Army Corps of Engineers warned the Ventura County Flood Control District not to build it, saying the surrounding steep landscape of coastal sage scrub and oak woodland was highly erodible and would fill the reservoir with sediment.

Then, during its construction, it was discovered the concrete used in the dam had a condition that would weaken over time. The original structure was 198 feet tall but was notched down in the 1960s and ’70s to 168 feet due to safety concerns. Those safety concerns continue to this day because this is California, where earthquakes are always a possibility. In 2018, Matilija Dam received a “poor” rating for seismic risk in a review by state’s Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD).

Lastly, before Matilija Dam was built, the Southern California steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) would come upriver to spawn. But because the fish can no longer migrate to their historic freshwater habitats to reproduce to maintain or grow their populations, the trout has been listed as endangered. Sheydeyi, who’s managing the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project for the county says if the dam were removed it’s believed that a good population of the fish would return to the upstream watershed.

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Given the numerous downsides—impeded fish migration, beach erosion, and seismic risk—not to mention that it provides no water supply—Matilija Dam has been slated for removal, and among the graffiti painted all around the dam is a dashed line with a giant pair of scissors suggesting, “cut here” to empty its contents. The artwork has become iconic in the movement to remove obsolete dams and was featured in the documentary DamNation.

Matilija Dam (Photo by J. Clifton)

But unleashing sediment that’s accrued for over 70 years is not something you can do without a lot of planning, studies—and money. In 2000, Jenkin formed the Matilija Coalition to bring together the many non-governmental organizations interested in removing the dam, such as CalTrout and Friends of the River, two statewide organizations that were focused on restoring native steelhead. The outdoor retailer Patagonia, which is headquartered along the Ventura River in the city, has been a huge backer of the effort. Also, the Open Rivers Fund (a program of Resources Legacy Fund with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that aids local community efforts to remove obsolete dams, modernize infrastructure, and restore rivers across the western United States) stepped in to help.

And now—20 years, several studies, and over $20 million later—they might finally have a solution. The current proposal is to drill two 12-foot holes at the base of the dam, and then, during a moderately sized rain event open them up to flush the fine sediments downriver. The county would then—potentially the following summer—dismantle the dam once the pressure load was released. Of the 8 million cubic yards in the reservoir it’s estimated that only 2 million cubic yards would move downstream. The rest would be stabilized in place and be restored with native vegetation that would become a permanent part of the landscape. Sheydeyi hopes that after the dam is gone the area will be a recreational destination with trails, which will allow people “to enjoy the cool waters during the late summer months at Matilija Creek.”

But before the flushing event happens however, improvements downstream would be needed. It’s estimated that the river would rise two to six feet in elevation once the dam is removed, so that will require two new bridges and two new levees—something that will likely take at least a decade and somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million to complete. Then, they wait for rain, which given California’s recent drought cycles could be a while.

A Lesson for Other Dams

What ultimately happens at Matilija might be a lesson for the hundreds of other California dams, sitting on creeks and streams that drain to the ocean. A study done by Cope M. Willis and Gary B. Griggs at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that statewide about 25 percent of sand that would have been delivered to the coast is now blocked by dams. In Southern California, where beaches are a huge part of the economy, it’s 50 percent.

All that trapped sediment also means reservoir capacity is shrinking. Toby Minear, a researcher at that Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, estimated in a 2009 paper that statewide, reservoirs have likely filled with 2.1 billion cubic meters of sediment, decreasing total reservoir capacity by 4.5 percent. About 200 reservoirs have likely lost more than half their initial capacity to sedimentation.

Climate Change

Surfers’ Point Bike Path, January 2019 (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

As the number of wildfires and extreme storms increase with climate change it will likely cause more sediment to move into reservoirs, further shrinking their capacity. Sediment transport in this fire-flood scenario is accelerated because burnt material is highly erodible and ready to be swept down hillsides with heavy rains. Sheydeyi says the 2017 Thomas Fire caused another influx of sediment and led to the growth bulrushes and grasses growing on the reservoir’s surface.

Phase 1 of the Managed Shoreline Retreat project at Surfers’ Point

The lack of sediment moving downriver combined with sea level rise will exacerbate problems already occurring along the coast such as flooding, cliff erosion, and threats to infrastructure. Beaches may seem static—that the sand just stays put—but it’s always in motion due to waves, wind, and tides. Winter waves have high energy that pulls sand offshore, making beaches narrower. In the summer, sand is carried back onto beaches, widening them again.

But this cycle only continues when there is a steady supply of sand. As sea levels rise a deficit of protective sand will expose cliffs and development to further erosion and flooding. Additionally, overbuilt shorelines mean that beaches lack the room to migrate inland to accommodate higher water. It’s in this context that, in 2011, a working group, including Surfrider, city planners, the California Coastal Conservancy, the State Coastal Commission, the Ventura County Fairgrounds, and others completed the first phase of what they call the first “managed shoreline retreat” project in the state of California, where infrastructure is moved back out of harm’s way in lieu of armoring the shore with seawalls and rock revetments.

In phase 1 of the Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat a 70- to 100-foot-wide stretch of sand dunes was engineered, underneath which rests an 8-foot-thick layer of imported river cobble. On the surface native plants and driftwood anchor the dunes in place. The project has gained recognition for coastal management in response to climate change, has been featured in numerous case studies, and serves as a model of sustainable shoreline management in the era of rising seas, according to the California Coastal Conservancy.

Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat (Photo by Frani Halperin/H2O Media, Ltd.)

An Epic Ride

If the various stakeholders involved in the Matilija Dam removal are able to raise the needed funds, the necessary infrastructure is completed, and a series of drenching storms hit the area—just how much sand would replenish the beach?

Jenkin says the initial assessment was that around 30 percent more sediment would come out of the river during each storm event, but they are currently completing studies to confirm that estimate. The fly in the ointment, he says, is that when the project was built they were predicting perhaps a foot-and-a-half of sea level rise by 2100. Now that could happen within the next decade or so. “Once we get four to five feet of sea level rise the whole California coast is going to dramatically change,” he says, adding that the dunes they’re constructing “are perhaps just buying time.”

Until then, he’s looking forward to a different experience at Surfers’ Point once the dam is removed, noting aerial photos taken back in the 1960s show that after big storm events a large sandbar forms at the river’s mouth. So, he says brightly, “we would anticipate—hopefully—a couple of epic days out here.”

This is the second story in H2O Radio’s series about sedimentation. Listen to the first story: “Damned from the Start—Many U.S. Reservoirs Could Be Rendered Useless—And That Was Part of the Plan”

Beachside Experiment: The Dunes are Alive Along the Santa Monica Coast

LOS ANGELES – We covered a lot of ground during our recent special series on climate change, including the grim fate of our beaches. As our science reporter Jacob Margolis put it: based on the latest research, the beaches from Santa Monica to Malibu could be unrecognizable by the end of the century.

One of the ways the city of Santa Monica has been working to address specific aspects of that change — sea-level rise and coastal flooding — is with something called “living dunes.”

Part naturally occurring sandhills, part landscaping, the living dunes represent an attempt to help nature restore itself along the Santa Monica waterfront.

The Bay Foundation, a non-profit environmental group, partnered with the city to set aside three acres of sand for this beachside experiment to see how well the dunes could combat beach erosion compared to other methods.

The Bay Foundation installed informational signage and illustrations for the public to learn the benefits of restoration and the wildlife it can bring to the beach. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

The program was set up three years ago near the Annenberg Community Beach House on a stretch of beach that has been groomed and leveled for more than 50 years. Typically along the coast, trucks and tractors are brought in to rake the beach of trash and debris, but this disrupts the way beaches are supposed to look.

“Beaches normally want to have plants and dunes,” said researcher Melodie Grubbs, director of watershed programs at The Bay Foundation. Coastal cities have created an image of big, pristine white beaches that attract beachgoers, but that aesthetic has come at the cost of habitat and protection from coastal flooding.

Grubbs said it’s time for action.

“As a coastal community, we need to start doing things now,” she said. “This is a matter of: Do we want to keep our beaches and enjoy them for future generations? And this is definitely a part of the solution.”

Melodie Grubbs, director of watershed programs, stands on the path which crosses in the middle of the beach restoration site. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

The Greener Option

State agencies and city planners have tried several methods when trying to shore up the beaches and prepare for rising sea levels.

Traditionally, seawalls and other types of flooding protection have been the default. The priorities in the past have been to save homes and infrastructure first. But these can be expensive and also come “at the cost of the beach,” Grubbs said.

When hard structures are in place, the tide pulls sand off beaches, making erosion worse and creating a cliffside with no beach below.

The advantage of living dunes is that in addition to protecting the coastline, they are considered a greener option because they use existing sand instead of re-located sand — which is costly and creates more pollution by trucking it in.

Santa Monica’s not the only city to experiment with living dunes. Encinitas is using a similar method on Cardiff State Beach. But where the beaches on Cardiff have rocks supporting the dunes, Santa Monica is using plants and fencing to help maintain shape.

The north-facing fence line on the Santa Monica Beach Restoration Pilot Project, illustrating the contrast between the growth of vegetation of native plant species and the sands beyond the edge. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

At the onset of the experiment, researchers blanketed the test area with 40,000 seeds with the idea that coastal beach plant species would reset the ecosystem. The native, drought-resistant plants could create a root system to sustain the structure of the dunes naturally. It’s an experiment, so “we sort of just put it here and wait and see what would happen. We just left it,” said Grubbs.

Since installation, areas on the site have risen above 1-3 meters in height. The beach is dotted with beautiful flowering sand verbena and beach evening primrose throughout. Yellow and purple blooms create a beach with colorful freckles that harken to the shorelines of the East Coast. Also thriving are sea scale and beach bur, both low-lying plants that help support the miniature sand dunes.

Beach evening primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia) is one of the flowering plants that add color to the pilot’s landscape. (Courtesy of The Bay Foundation)

The Living Lab

Researchers will continue to evaluate how the dunes might act as protection for coastal infrastructure. This demonstration site will provide not only a scientific basis to develop guidelines and protocols but an integrated, locally based program for increasing the usefulness of natural environments in a developed area.

The foundation is publishing its findings from “soft” low-cost natural shore protection from sea-level rise and storms in the next year.

“This project gave us a real opportunity to see what this type of soft-scape project could do for the ecosystem,” said Grubbs. “It’s a living lab for us to watch.”

An artistic rendering of how the site may look several years post-restoration. (Courtesy of The Bay Foundation)

The dunes, also known as dune hummocks, are also restoring habitat for invertebrates, birds, and rare coastal vegetation species.

Groomed beaches provide a harsh landscape for shorebirds and insects, offering them little protection from natural predators. Greenery serves as both cover and a food source for smaller organisms. Larger species like birds are able to nest and find shelter within the dune hummocks. The Western Snowy Plover, a federally recognized threatened species, has even been spotted on the beach after an absence of over 70 years, due to the restoration pilot.

The project has also proven to be something of a “cultural experiment,” Grubbs said. “Generations of people in this area have not seen this kind of beach. But it also acts as a model. This shows that regular beach use and restoration projects can exist in the same space,” she said.

Native beach plants and sand beetle tracks show that areas of the restoration are returning to a wild beach habitat. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

Looking Ahead

Next up for The Bay Foundation’s beach restoration efforts is the “Malibu Living Shoreline Project.”

For this one, they’ll partner with the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors and the California State Coastal Conservancy to restore 3 acres of sandy beach and dune habitat at Zuma Beach and Point Dume Beach.

Bye-Bye Beaches: How Parts of SoCal’s Iconic Coast Could Disappear in Our Lifetime

LOS ANGELES – The stretch of coast from Santa Monica to Malibu is iconic and quintessentially Californian. It’s also ridiculously beautiful — and it’s clear, based on the latest science, it could be unrecognizable by the end of the century.

As the planet warms, sea levels will continue to rise, threatening some of our most beloved stretches of coastline.

I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time on those beaches. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, I used to head over the hill in my friend’s baby blue VW bus, or my mom’s minivan, to surf Topanga or Malibu on my 9’8 Kennedy longboard. It was and still is an amazing escape from the traffic, heat and urban sprawl of the Valley.

I wanted to know exactly what climate change could mean for our beach-going experience through the end of the century, so I reached out to scientists and stakeholders to find out what they know.

Here are the challenges — and some solutions.

Seas Will Rise

First, some context.

A few feet of sea level rise might not sound very alarming, but every vertical foot could mean roughly 20 feet farther that the ocean encroaches inland (depending on a lot of factors, like the slope of the coastline), according to Patrick Barnard, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey.

The state’s 2018 sea level rise guidance laid out different scenarios based on how much we curb our greenhouse gas emissions.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

As a precaution, the report recommends that state officials anticipate 10 feet of rise when building crucial infrastructure along the coast.

Keep in mind some researchers think we’ve been underestimating just how bad things could get.

Beaches Will Disappear

According to a paper co-authored by Barnard, SoCal could lose between 31% – 67% of its beaches by 2100.

And areas like Malibu could be threatened in the coming decades.

“I mean these are very, very narrow beaches. They’re already having lots of issues, and just a bit of sea level rise and they’re going to be completely gone,” said Barnard, adding that Malibu could see a major loss of its beaches in the coming decades.

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Homes are sandwiched between rising water and Pacific Coast Highway at Carbon Beach in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Our coastline is always changing, but as sea levels rise and intense storm surges (potentially) become more common, there’s conflict between natural processes and the parts of our coast we want to save.

“If we didn’t have anything built on the coast, the beaches in the coastal zone are incredibly dynamic and built to change. When sea level comes up, the beach moves in. When sea level goes out … the beach moves out with it,” said Kiki Patsch, who studies sediment dynamics at Cal State Channel Islands.

“But when sea level rises and we draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is the beach and these are my homes,’ we have a problem,” she said.

When water encroaches and beaches have nowhere to go, because we decide to protect infrastructure and homes, we’re likely going to lose those beaches.

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Santa Monica’s beaches are substantially wider than those in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Beaches like Santa Monica that have been widened with massive amounts of sediment could hold up with regular additions of sand, at least for a period of time.

Here’s a visualization of what rising sea levels could theoretically look like from the pier:

Caltrans just released its vulnerability assessments for our region, and they’re particularly bleak for our coast. There’s not much area between the ocean and the hills in many spots. Really, much of it’s just homes and critical infrastructure, like PCH. Which means that in some places we’re going to have to decide between one or the other.

“There can be situations where if we’re using shoreline protection to protect private residential development, that might be coming at the expense of a public beach area. And that’s going to be a huge environmental justice issue,” said Madeline Cavaleri, statewide planning manager for the California Coastal Commission. “We don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Las Tunas Beach, and the homes along the coast will see signifcant sea level rise over time because of the effects of climate change. Photographed on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

Surfing Could Take a (Duck) Dive

Surf spots are complicated.

I talked to Dan Reineman, a professor at Cal State Channel Islands who’s studied the impact of sea level rise on waves.

He said that at three feet, Malibu’s waves could get mushy. Surfers already experience that at high tide. With sea level rise it would be like it’s high tide all the time.

That said, it’s more complicated than just plunking down additional water on top of a break. How we manage our coasts and sediment flow will all impact what we experience on shore.

Scenes from a Monday morning at Malibu Surfrider Beach on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

“Whether you are armoring the sea cliffs or damming the rivers, that’ll have ramifications all of the way down the coast, because that is where the sand is coming from,” said Patsch.

That could mean that if we decide to stick sea walls and big piles of rocks up and down our coast to protect what’s there, surf spots could suffer, too.

That could, “pull the sand offshore and downshore, so it’ll get deeper offshore. Waves break because they start to interact with the bottom, so when it’s deeper you lose your surf break,” she said.

Derek Grimes, a Ph.D. student in physical oceanography at Scripps, noted that while the transport of sediment could negatively impact Malibu’s beaches, we don’t know how it could impact other breaks up and down the coast. It’s possible that new, sought-after spots will pop up.

Grimes told me he’s seen that happen off the coast of North Carolina when the bottom of channels are dredged for ships.

What We Do Matters

The good news is that everything we love about our coast is not going to disappear overnight. And we’ll have the opportunity to decide how we want to manage things going forward.

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For instance:

We can continue to dump sand and “nourish” beaches, though sand is an expensive and finite resource that can be wiped away easily by storms.

Places like Santa Monica and Cardiff Beach are experimenting with living dunes.

We can move homes and Highway 1 – and maybe even turn the latter into, say, hiking areas, like they did in Pacifica.

And some people want to install armoring up and down our entire coast, which could run into big problems with California law. Some homeowners in places like Broad Beach in Malibu figured out a workaround and did it on their own.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

SoCal City Fights Climate Change with Million Dollar Sand Dunes

ENCINITAS, Calif. – The city of Encinitas used some giant scissors to cut a giant ribbon, to celebrate some giant piles of sand on Cardiff State Beach.

Sometimes giant piles of sand are just sand. But these piles are not. They’re engineered “living dunes” that have been five years in the making. And they’re part of an ongoing effort to save Cardiff from rising sea levels.

These super dunes may even provide a roadmap for saving other beaches that are susceptible to climate change, up and down California’s coast.

Erosion, Erosion, Erosion

When it comes to California’s beaches, erosion is normal. Our coastal landscapes are meant to change. However, rising sea levels and intense storms have exacerbated the dangers of erosion, and the fact that we’ve built homes and infrastructure right up against it means that it’s a huge concern.

In many places, we fight against erosion by “nourishing” beaches, which means adding a bunch of sand to increase their size, like at Zuma Beach in Malibu. We sometimes also line the beaches with giant rocks, especially along roads, the hope being that those rocks will absorb some of the energy put out by the powerful ocean, thus saving the infrastructure behind them.

The living dunes at Cardiff State Beach in Encinitas are roughly 14 feet above sea level and three feet above Highway 101. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

That’s what officials were doing at Cardiff for years, in an effort to protect the beach and North Coast Highway 101, but it wasn’t working.

“[Cardiff] was already experiencing flooding during extreme high tide events and during extreme storms,” said Jayme Timberlake, Coastal Zone Program Administrator for the City of Encinitas.

Any sand that they used to nourish the beach was quickly washed away, shrinking its usable area. And the rocks that they used to protect the 101 were just being thrown up onto it.

“It did cause a lot of issues with access, access to the highway itself. The highway is pretty critical for daily commuters,” said Timberlake.

Recognizing that the problem wasn’t going to get any better as sea levels rose, the city decided to act, and over the course of five years designed and built a “living shoreline.”

While the process is similar to beach nourishment in that it uses a lot of sand, it’s completely different in that it’s meticulously engineered, offers tiers of protection and is designed to last a long time.

Like a Sandy Layer Cake

Beneath the piles of sand are rocks, or cobble, that are stacked at specific angles, and increase in size the further you get from the water. They’re buried about ten feet deep and are sitting on top of a thick fabric that’s designed to keep them from sinking.

“There’s science backing cobble at being pretty effective at shoreline protection. It stacks up more steeply and higher as waves attack it,” said Brian Leslie, Senior Coastal Scientist with GHD, a firm that the city contracted with on the project. “It’s … like this first line of defense for the dune, so the dune doesn’t get eroded right away when we start to get these big waves and tides.”

The city installed sand fences and planted native vegetation on top of the mounds to stop them from blowing away. There’s also the added benefit of building natural habitat for the adorable snowy plovers.

“This is a coastal strand that was formerly … a dune system, so it’s bringing back what used to be here and it’s meant to be a permanent feature,” said Leslie.

The dunes will erode so they’ll require nourishing, though it’s unclear how often.

Sand fencing establishes a pathway through the living dunes at Cardiff State Beach. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

A Big Experiment

“The Cardiff project is very unique. Nobody has really tried that before in California,” said Nick Sadrpour, Science, Research & Policy Specialist at the University of Southern California’s Sea Grant Program. “This burgeoning idea of living shorelines, of working with nature, of mimicking nature, is really exciting from a coastal resilience perspective.”

While living shorelines have had success on the East Coast, we don’t know how they’re going to work out here. There are a few places they’re being tested, including Santa Monica and Orange County.

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Cardiff, though, is a big experiment.

Researchers from the SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography and UCLA, as well as government groups like the California Coastal Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy, will all be keeping tabs on what goes on there.

They’ll be watching for changes in the growth and slope of the dunes, as well as the movement of cobble and sand migration.

“Success is the stabilization of the dunes,” said Timberlake. “While we try to discern the next steps in adapting to sea level rise, and to these larger sea level rise projections.”

If all goes well, similar projects could pop up all along the coast. However, they won’t be workable for every location, and it’s not like the project was exactly cheap.

These dunes cost between 2.5 to 3 million dollars, according to Timberlake.

Sand fencing has been installed on the living dunes to slow erosion via wind. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

And even if the dunes are successful, both Timberlake and Leslie acknowledge that they may only last 20 to 30 years before rising sea levels make them impractical, at least at Cardiff.

“Once we get to the three feet and over [range], it’s going to be tough to keep a dune system here,” said Leslie. “It’s a problem now and that problem’s going to get worse over time.”

California could lose roughly half of its beaches by 2100, according to the United States Geological Survey.

“After 30 years, we haven’t quite identified what we’re going to do yet,” said Timberlake. “It basically bought us some further time to devise plans for that area.”