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California dreaming: is there a right to be a beach?

A seawall in Ventura County, California. Photo Surfrider Foundation

A seawall in Ventura County, California.
Photo Surfrider Foundation

Mary Gardner

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.

Beach value

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.

Byron’s plan

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.


4 responses to “California dreaming: is there a right to be a beach?”

  1. Len Heggarty says:

    Why write about California?

  2. Keith Mackie says:

    Two interesting comments:

    1. High Water Mark: lawyers seem to have no understanding of the shoaling process, particularly the swash (in respect of this latter, even surfers seem wanting). For at least the last 200 years leading British jurists, judges and professors, have been mis-translating the original Latin of the Institutes of Justinian (533 AD) the foundation of Western Roman Law. They do not understand the swash and confuse and concaternate their translations with the work of Mathew Hale (1660) that applies the low energy and very high tide regimes of the British estuaries.

    2. Colonial French practice tackled the problem head-on. It introduced the idea of the Cinquante Pas Géomètriques – 50 double paces of five large French feet – in effect 81.2 m as a shore line reserve above the High Water Mark.

    I believe (with only anecdotal reference) that the policy was first introduced to create a clear field of fire on the sea shore to give defenders a chance to repel invaders! Whatever the original reason it is a boon to coastal environmental policy wherever it exists – and is enforced.

  3. m gardner says:

    In this day and age, considering policies and situations in other countries is certainly important.
    The experience helps us notice and name the various elements in our own situation. It also reminds everyone that we people create these situations.

    The UN offers this review:
    In countries with Romance systems of law (Spain, France, Italy, Portugal) the coastal zone always was and remains state property and is managed by the state. The right of citizens to visit the coastal zone is combined with a prohibition on construction within the limits of a shore, except within cities. Private ownership of coastal land is allowed only in separate states and includes significant charges.

    In countries with traditions of German and Scandinavian law (Germany, Sweden, Denmark) coastal land, like any other, may be privately owned. At the same time, there is the right of unimpeded travel through these parcels of land and free-of-charge access to use some kinds of natural resources
    http://www.unesco.org/csi/act/russia/legalpro5.htm

    By contrast Japan has a highly engineered coast
    Analysis of changes in the coastline reveal that as artificial coastline has increased, and that natural
    coastline has correspondingly decreased. Despite a slowdown in the speed of construction of
    landfill coastline and preservation structures, the trend toward increased artificiality of the
    coastline remains unchanged
    http://oldsite.nautilus.org/archives/papers/energy/IsobeESENAY2.pdf

    Closer to home in China and Bangladesh (read past the awkward English)
    The Xiamen Marine Management and Coordination Committee organized several public awareness
    activities during the Xiamen Demonstration Project,like A weekly column in a local newspaper was published focusing on the marine environment, articles about the marine environment broadcasted on local TV and radio (Chua et al. 1997)…..

    In Bangladesh gender inequalities and gaps exist in the coastal zone, in particular in the fields of access to livelihoods assets and access to resources. Often the economically and politically powerful people with ensuring political protection seized the land of coastal area (Hossain and Lin 2001).
    But without significant modification and careful evaluation of involved power structures a successful local ICZM (Integrated coastal zone management) structure cannot be implemented nationwide. http://www.loiczsouthasia.org/pdfdocuments/Bangladesh_ICZM_Plan.pdf

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