JEFFREY KAYE: California's beaches are the sun-soaked icons of the good life. Millions of people flock to them every year for fun and frolicking, rest and relaxation. But many of California's wide, sandy beaches, like beaches around the country, are in jeopardy. They're washing away because of growing levels of coastal erosion, erosion that threatens seaside homes and businesses.
In California, one of the places in greatest danger is Solana Beach near San Diego. During high tide, the sandy beach vanishes completely underwater and waves begin eating away at towering coastal bluffs, threatening the homes that sit atop them.
PAUL SANTINA: Every one of these houses is in severe emergency situation of not only losing the property, but losing the buildings.
JEFFREY KAYE: Paul Santina is the president of the Beach and Bluff Conservancy which represents 2,500 Solana Beach residents. He says because of beach erosion, he and his neighbors are literally living on the edge.
PAUL SANTINA: Here in Solana Beach we have probably had a major bluff collapse once a month for the last eighteen months. This room, right here, was hanging out over the bluff after the collapse, by seven to eight feet, and we had to actually remove this bedroom so the lady wouldn't go down the bluff with the bedroom.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nationally, as many as 1,500 coastal structures are lost annually because of coastal erosion, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA estimates that by 2010, as beaches retreat, the number of lost buildings could jump to 10,000. Coastal development from flood control channels to homes to highways is not only imperiled by erosion; development also accelerates damage to the beach. It does so by blocking the supply of new inland sediment that reaches the coast in runoff, sediment that replenishes beaches with material for new sand.
Without that sediment, sandy beaches get narrower and eventually wash away completely, eliminating an important protective buffer between the open ocean and coastal properties. That's what's happened in Solana Beach. Some residents, including Santina, have built private seawalls to protect their properties. But to protect the entire seaside neighborhood, Santina's homeowners group wants the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to both widen the beach and, more controversially, construct more seawalls. The project would coast $20 to $40 million in public money, but without it Santina predicts the homes in his seaside neighborhood face oblivion.
PAUL SANTINA: They'll fall into the ocean. Just like the property right here. It's ready to go. They fall into the ocean. They disappear. The property's gone.
SPENCER MICHELS: But seawalls and other so-called coastal armoring projects, which already cover more than a 100 miles of the California coastline, have drawn criticism from environmentalists. For one thing, they argue, taxpayers wind up paying to protect private property. For another, they say, seawalls speed up the disappearance of beaches by preventing even more sediment from being turned into sand. Chad Nelson is the environmental director for the coastal ecological group the Surfrider Foundation, which has sued to fight seawall projects.
CHAD NELSON, Surfrider Foundation: Coastal armoring protects the land. It's great for property owners, but it doesn't protect the beach. So from the perspective of saving the land, armoring is a good solution. From the perspective of saving the beach, it's a terrible solution.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nelson also criticizes government-subsidized programs that have encouraged beach development.
CHAD NELSON: On the national level, there's the national flood insurance program. This is a federal insurance program that allows coastal home owners in high erosion areas that have already been deemed really hazardous to get home insurance protection for this erosion, whereas if they had to get it privately it would probably be unaffordable because the risks are so high.
SPENCER MICHELS: Past zoning decisions that allowed people to build in unsafe coastal locations have contributed to putting people in harms way, says Mary Nichols, California's secretary of natural resources.
MARY NICHOLS: I think the pressure to allow construction right on or above the beach has been almost irresistible. We certainly have in the past seen too much chock-a-block, wall to wall development in many communities. That is because as a society we prefer in general to err on the side of letting private property owners exercise their rights over allowing the harsh hand of the government regulating what people do.
STEPHEN MORRISON: The Surfrider Foundation has proposed an alternative to seawalls called planned retreat. They want the government to buy up threatened properties and tear them down, returning the parcels of land to a pre-developed condition. But many seaside property owners say any serious consideration of planned retreat would cost billions of dollars and send coastal real estate values plummeting. Santina says protecting existing coastal properties, in Solana Beach and other coastal communities is cheaper and in the interest of both owners and beach visitors.
PAUL SANTINA: We want to be safe. We don't want our children to die in bluff collapses. I know that might sound like a radical concept to you, but safety is kind of a good idea in our opinion. So this is not just about the people who live here. You know how many people use the beach?
SPENCER MICHELS: Such arguments make it difficult for public officials to oppose requests for new coastal armoring projects, says California Resources Secretary Nichols.
MARY NICHOLS: The gray area really has to do with existing structures and existing communities. If you've got three beach houses next to each other, and two of them have seawalls and the one in the middle doesn't, how do you tell that person the next time there is a big storm, "well, it's too bad you have to lose your house, but these other two folks are okay because we let them put the seawalls in."
SPENCER MICHELS: Many coastal communities believe there's another way to fight beach erosion - a method that avoids the drawbacks of both coastal armoring and planned retreat. It's called beach restoration. Millions of cubic yards of sediment are dredged up off shore and then pumped onto the shoreline. When the slurry dries, the beach is re-carpeted in a new wide swath of sand. At a cost of $17.5 million, San Diego County has restored six miles of coastline this way. That money is considered an investment in the area's all important tourism business says Rob Rundle of the San Diego Association of Governments.
ROB RUNDLE: The beaches are one of the main destinations of the people coming to the region. Tourists coming to visit our beaches, as well as residents and all of our local businesses, the hotels, everyone benefits from that. So it's important that we have healthy beaches that really do stand for what everybody thinks of when they think of San Diego.
SPENCER MICHELS: But beach restoration, which has been used for years on eastern seaboard and southern beaches, has its critics who complain about mammoth costs. The budget watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, has estimated that along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts beach replenishment programs over the past 80 years have cost the federal treasury $3.5 billion when adjusted for inflation. There are also concerns about beach replenishment's long term effectiveness.
CHAD NELSON: You are really treating the symptom and not the problem. The problem is the loss of sand supply to the beach and if you keep supplying the sand, you're going to be stuck constantly every three to five years adding sand to the beach. We liken it to a heroin addiction and once you start, you can't stop.
SPENCER MICHELS: Conflicts over how best to protect California's, and America's, beaches are expected to become sharper as growing numbers of people live and build along the nation's coasts.