Our Coast

A journey along California’s 840 miles of coastline shows urbanization’s impact on communities, the environment and people's lives.

Extensive coastal development in the past 50 years has been a detrimental to California's natural landscape and the famous surf spots.

"There”s no question that California”s population has doubled in the 43 years since I’ve been here," said Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California-Santa Cruz. "It's gone from 19 million to almost 39 million people. And most of the those people, 75 percent of them are living in coastal counties."

Photo: Alex Pines

In just over two generations, more than 90 percent of California’s open coastline has been developed. As erosion increases, surfers lose historical surf breaks and families are forced out of their homes during extreme storms and weather conditions.

In January 2010, a state of emergency was declared near San Francisco. Due to extensive erosion, 900 feet of coastline fell into the sea, jeopardizing a 14-foot tube carrying raw sewage underneath parts of the Great Highway south of Sloat Boulevard. City officials responded by building a temporary wall of giant boulders along the bluff.

As tidal currents are thrown off their natural course, California's coastline faces major erosion that is intensified during El Nino periods when ocean temperatures rise with water levels. Seawalls have become a temporary solution, but waves crashing into these fortified structure ultimately shift sand down the coast eroding neighboring beaches instead.

“If sea level rises by one foot or two feet or three feet by 2100, were going to see a lot of California’s beaches disappear," Griggs said. "No matter how much sand we might throw on them to keep them there, it’s going to be a different coastline than we see today.”

While disappearing beaches are evident over time, more subtle is the increasing presences of pollution making its way into the Pacific. Runoff from river mouths, farms and improper sewage outlets streams directly into the ocean and back into the air.

Among those who have taken notice and are greatly affected are longtime surfers.

Once treasured surf spots such as "Killer Dana" at Dana Point are disappearing. In 1967, the land was transformed into a harbor, and the construction and pollutants from boat traffic eliminated Killer Dana altogether.

Also, pollution has been the cause of dramatic changes at Birdrock in La Jolla north of San Diego. What was once a grassy reef has turned into a rock reef following the replacement of a nearby sewage pump. Surfers now commonly cut their feet as they try to walk onto the rocky reef toward the lineup.

While cuts may heal, significant health threats are surfacing as well. Surfers are increasingly complaining of stomach flu, sinus infections and more recently, MRSA, a contagious staph bacteria that is difficult to treat. At some point, some surfers are forced to ask themselves when to call it quits to save their health.

This documentary includes perspectives from environmental experts and avid surfers who are devoted to better understanding and managing the state’s urban transformation for different reasons, while encompassing the natural beauty found along California’s 840 miles of coastline.

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