The Battle for Beacon’s Beach
With increased coastal flooding and erosion, climate change is harshing California’s mellow vibes. Officials say it’s time to retreat from the shore altogether. Residents want to stay and fight. Paul Kvinta reports from the front lines of a pitched battle, where geologists and millionaires are squaring off, and friendly fire between surfers isn’t so friendly.
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In many ways, Jim Jaffee and Ari Marsh have a lot in common. Both are lifelong surfers in their fifties who have traveled the world chasing waves off four continents. Both are environmentalists. And both live near the beach in north San Diego County, a pillar of American surf culture—Jaffee in Solana Beach, Marsh in Encinitas. But when they met for the first time, in July 2018, on the 85-foot bluff overlooking Beacon’s Beach in Encinitas, what stood out were their differences.
The scene that evening was classic Beacon’s. With the sun low over the Pacific, surfers schlepped their boards up and down the long switchback trail connecting the clifftop parking lot with the beach below. From the bluff’s edge, parents chatted over post-surf beers, kids bounced around in wetsuits, and dogs tugged at their leashes. Couples enjoyed the endless ocean view, and surfers evaluated the waves. Beacon’s produces waves that are more modest than those at San Diego County’s legendary breaks, including Trestles to the north and Swami’s to the south. On the right day, however, with the right swell and the right Santa Ana winds blowing offshore, any of the breaks here—South Reef, Middles, Bamboos, North Reef—can make for fantastic surfing. Not that it matters. Ultimately, Beacon’s is a neighborhood surf spot, a place locals cherish as much for the community as for the waves.
Still, Beacon’s had a problem. Geologists consider the bluff an active landslide, eroding from wave action, water runoff, and groundwater penetration. Geotechnical studies of Beacon’s include phrases like “clear and imminent danger” and warn that bluff failure could “cause damage to life, health, or property.” There had been up to ten feet of landward erosion at the bottom of the bluff since 2002. With the parking lot and its 25 spaces extending to the edge of the bluff, the concern was that, without warning, the entire landscape could collapse, sending an avalanche of rock, asphalt, and cars hurtling toward the beach.
Jaffee is not a coastal engineer, but an electrical one with a major telecommunications company. He brings a problem-solving approach to life. He’s also a longtime volunteer and beach-preservation expert with the Surfrider Foundation. He agreed with geologists that the parking lot needed to be pulled back from the “slide plane.” And since a landslide would obliterate the bluff-hugging trail and eliminate access to a popular beach, a stairway was needed—something sturdy enough to withstand a bluff collapse. City officials were considering a proposal that did both of these things. The plan made sense to Jaffee.
Marsh, on the other hand, has a Zen poet’s approach to life. In his published collections of surf poetry and essays, Beacon’s figures prominently. In one piece, he calls the formation of waves at Beacon’s and his moments upon them “sacred mandalas” that symbolize “the ever-changing nature of our lives.” To Marsh, geotechnical studies didn’t capture the essence of Beacon’s. Transcendent, often inexplicable things happened there. One time, when he and some other surfers were lined up way outside at South Reef, a sea lion pup surfaced suddenly. The critter hopped onto Marsh, who was lying on his board, and clutched onto him for almost 15 minutes. It was shaking. Had a shark been chasing it? When a particularly big set rolled in, Marsh duck-dived under the waves and the pup hopped off. The two locked eyes for a moment after Marsh reemerged, then the animal disappeared. The experience reminded Marsh that Beacon’s is a hallowed place.
For Marsh, the city’s proposal was a desecration. The designs for a concrete stairway amounted to an industrial intrusion into the last bit of pristine coast left in Encinitas. He also couldn’t fathom Beacon’s without that iconic switchback trail. Similar trails and their retro quality were now a rarity in Southern California. The proposal was scheduled to be considered by the Encinitas Planning Commission in one week’s time. Marsh had launched an opposition movement called Preserve Beacon’s with another surfer, Pete Brately, and they arrived at the bluff that evening hopeful that they could sway Jaffee. Surfrider, since its start in 1984, had evolved from a ragtag group of surfers defending California’s surf breaks into a heavyweight coastal-advocacy organization. If Marsh could get Surfrider on board, the plan would almost certainly fail.
At the bluff, the three were joined by Jaffee’s colleague Julia Chunn-Heer, who was the policy manager for Surfrider’s San Diego chapter. Everyone agreed they loved the trail, but keeping it long-term meant securing the slope with a seawall at the bottom. Beaches are dynamic systems that naturally migrate landward, Jaffee explained, with eroding bluffs providing sand. Fixed structures stop that migration and eliminate sand supply. Plus, with sea-level rise, the advancing surf would eventually reach the seawall and cover the beach, like water filling a bathtub. A seawall basically meant losing the beach. Marsh wasn’t pushing for a seawall—he just wanted to leave things be. There had not been a major slide at Beacon’s since 2001. Why all the urgency?
Still, the meeting was cordial. Jaffee and Chunn-Heer clearly leaned toward the city’s plan, but they hadn’t taken an official position yet. That gave Marsh hope. He left the meeting thinking, That was weird. I mean, it’s Surfrider. They support surfers, right? They support maintaining the character of beaches. Marsh believed Jaffee would eventually come through.
Six days later, 48 hours before the planning commission vote, the local newspaper, the Coast News, carried the headline “Surfrider Foundation Endorses City’s Staircase Plan.” Marsh was crushed. “They’re ignoring local surfers,” he told Brately. “They’re ruining something iconic.” It was one thing to battle the city, he thought, and now they had to fight Surfrider, too? They couldn’t possibly win.