California is still setting trends on its beaches and coasts. Okay, the Beach Boys are still playing in Monterey in early January but look behind the scenes.
Dedicated surfers are taking direct action and helping set policies all along the coast. Their Surfrider Foundation promotes ‘managed landward retreat’ and avoiding ‘shoreline armouring’. They paddle out in protest at sandbagging on beaches. To inform the public, their website offers cutting-edge technical publications about these issues.
In pressing situations, the California Coastal Commission may permit a rock wall for a set time period. But in addition to the building costs, the owners also pay mitigation fees. Everyone understands that such works mean the beach will be lost. The argument is how to best calculate a comprehensive penalty rate. Surfrider staff member Chad Nelsen did a PhD investigating this problem.
Nelsen explains that an ‘armoured’ sandy beach is lost in three ways. First, the back of the beach is lost and cannot grow inland as required. Next is the seaward loss, as the sandy area inevitably narrows. Finally, the adjacent beach areas are also considered as losses, exacerbated by the construction.
The fee calculations consider the value and loss of ‘consumer surplus’. This is an economic label which requires a bit of double thinking. The surplus is what purchasers are willing to pay over what they actually pay. The American dollar value of this figure is calculated per beach visit and ranges from $12.60 at Cabrillo-Long Beach to $90.58 in San Diego.
Nelsen considers how the formula for current calculations is missing values for ‘ecosystem services’. This is an actual cash figure set for the work a beach does.
A shore’s job description includes direct and indirect tasks. The first is ‘providing nursery areas for fish, turtles, seabirds… [growing] bait and food organisms…[and offering] scenic vistas and recreation opportunities’.
Indirect work is about sand: ‘sediment storage and transport, providing functional links between land and sea’. It is also about seawater: ‘buffering against waves and extreme events such as storms, responding to sea level rise’.
The task list goes on. The beach breaks down organic materials and various pollutants. It filters and purifies fresh water and storm runoff. It stores water in dune aquifers.
Finally it also must ‘maintain biodiversity and genetic resources’. To think the beaches are also managing a kind of filing system for present and future generations of animals and plants!
Another value is its existence: ‘right of existence and value of existence of a beach, even if never visited’. Perhaps a beach itself doesn’t seem lovable, as are koalas or dolphins. But where would these animals be without their habitats and the people who support these places? So existence value is calculated to include residents and tourists. It also includes those who simply stay at home and believe in sandy beaches.
This year in Byron Shire, we face the politics and calculations of a Coastal Zone Management Plan. These Californian trends offer a mixed bag.
Is everything about money? If so, penalty fees for destroying beaches are brave attempts to meet neoconservative economic thinking head on: ‘if you want it so bad, pay up in full’. It seems stronger than the whitewash calculations used here by our council.
For those who understand interrelationships best in terms of dollars, full costing of beach losses makes ominous sense. Nelsen adds that a beach also has ‘bequest’ value: a tangible worth to future generations. So penalty fees could be even larger and extend for years.
Planned retreat begins to look like a bargain. On top of that, rehabilitating the shore can earn a community blue carbon dollars. The precious contrast with the highly developed Gold Coast will increase tourism values and make even more dollars.
Linking sandy beaches with renewed wetlands can increase the value of flood mitigation. Improving prospects for wildlife and fish can increase the value of local food security. Money grows in the sand.
Finally, those who think in terms of larger GDP and ever-rising economic growth always insist there are opportunities in disasters. Look at Chile where in 2010 the 8.8 earthquake and tsunami devastated the coast. Some of the ‘armoured’ walls sank into the sea, but others were destroyed as forces of nature uplifted the very bedrock.
Suddenly large sandy beaches reappeared. Within a few years, coastal plants and marine animals were re-establishing themselves there, working for free and adding value.