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Along the crumbling Sonoma coast, an ambitious project paves the way for 'managed retreat'

By Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

GLEASON BEACH, Calif. — A few winding turns past Bodega Bay, along foggy bluffs and coastal prairie, relentless waves pound a crumbling stretch of coastline in dire need of saving.

Here at Gleason Beach, once referred to as Malibu North, the beach gets drowned during high tide. Bits of concrete and rebar are all that remain of 11 clifftop homes that have already surrendered to the sea. A graveyard of seawalls, smashed into pieces, litters the shore.

Highway 1 now hangs inches from what seems like the edge of the world. For decades, officials have scrambled to save the road from the ocean — pouring millions of tax dollars into a vicious cycle of sudden collapses and emergency repairs. Last year, this critical lifeline for the region was reduced to one lane.

With the realities of climate change looming ever closer, California transportation officials are now moving a key stretch of highway more than 350 feet inland — one of the first major efforts by the state to relocate, or "manage retreat," critical infrastructure far enough away from the coast to make room for the next 100 years of sea level rise.

The ambitious project — approved in November after more than a decade of planning — comes at a time when city and state leaders across California are waking up to the social and economic disasters of sea level rise. At least $8 billion in property could be underwater by 2050, according to recent legislative reports, with an additional $10 billion at risk during high tides. Heavier storms and more intense cycles of El Nino could make things even worse.

In a set of targets guided by Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration, many agencies agreed this year to prepare California for at least 3.5 feet of sea level rise by 2050.


The painful reimagining of Gleason Beach offers a glimpse into the future for other communities now clashing over the costs and compromises of living by the sea. At the heart of this $73 million project is a reckoning over what is worth saving — and what is worth sacrificing — and whether it's possible to redesign a treasured landscape so that it survives into the future.

"It seems daunting, it's a lot of change to cope with, but it's also an opportunity for communities to think about: What are the coastal resources we want to have access to 50, 100 years from now?" said Tami Grove, the California Coastal Commission's statewide transportation program manager. "It gets lost, sometimes, when people are worried about everything that we're going to lose to sea level rise — but there are things that we're going to be able to choose and enhance and design into the future if we start planning now."

Maintaining this critical stretch of Highway 1 has been a decades-long saga. It is the only evacuation route for many residents, as well as the only way to reach many of Sonoma's beaches and sweeping vistas — the economic and cultural soul of the region.

Photos from the 1970s show more than 20 blufftop homes and a wide sandy beach buffering the highway from the sea. But the particularly unstable cliffs in this area have been eroding about 1 foot a year on average, exacerbated by sea level rise and sudden landslides.


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