West Coast
Rosanna Xia’s “California Against the Sea”

CA - Book outlines better responses to our ‘vanishing coastline’

There is a new book that is the topic of a lot of discussion across the San Mateo County coast.

Perhaps that is because a number of your neighbors are quoted in its pages. But you don’t have to be mentioned in Rosanna Xia’s “California Against the Sea” to see yourself in this important book. As fans of the state’s unequaled coastline, we are all linked to the story.

The subtitle of the book is “Visions for our Vanishing Coastline.” It is a study of the various ways California coastal cities are responding to the reality of sea level rise. The author, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, chronicles positions of those who would spare no expense to armor their cherished towns against the sea, those who acknowledge the inevitability of erosion and would rather plan for a different kind of future, and many scientists and politicians trying to help residents find their way to a rational response.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the author found Pacifica. Chapter 3, titled, “A Town on the Edge,” is about the city and local residents who have fought tooth and nail — often against one another — to preserve their slice of heaven the best way they know how. The chapter is the new standard primer for anyone wanting a quick history of Pacifica’s relationship with the Pacific Ocean. As Xia points out, there is nothing new about the peril of living on the edge of the continent.

“Californians, however, kept dreaming the same dream and waging the same battles against nature. The people who claimed this edge by the sea, a place that perhaps was not meant to be, were still enamored with its potential,” Xia writes. “Past failures seemed less daunting the more time passed.”


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Author Talk – Rosanna Xia with Christina Gerhardt – California Against the Sea

Marin, October 22, 2023


She was not writing about the mean-spirited days between 2018 and 2020, when Pacificans tossed a mayor for daring to discuss the idea of “managed retreat” from a rising ocean that was gobbling up local land and churning it into the froth below. Rather, she was talking about equally heady days, around the turn of the 20th century, when builders of the Ocean Shore Railroad envisioned a vacation mecca along the San Mateo County coast without regard to the geography beneath their feet. And we all know how that ended.

Xia points out that there is nothing new about Americans weighing the pain of short-term expense against long-term sustainability. She calls it an “age-old quagmire.” A.R. Siders, a climate adaptation expert with the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, put the question of rising sea level and other such dilemmas like this: “Should the purpose of government be to keep people safe, or should it be to maintain property values?”

The author points out that managed retreat doesn’t necessarily mean “giving up” as one Pacifican puts it in the book. There are a number of long-term strategies, like better erosion mapping and buy-and-rent-back strategies that would help the state to afford purchasing vulnerable tracts while also allowing current residents to stay in place for the time being. She also points to a powerful example in Marina, a town near Monterey. Xia writes that politicians and residents there have embraced disclosures for anyone who purchases land subject to falling into the sea, moving infrastructure away from the ocean and even working with a resort to rearrange its buildings along the sea. That may be a model for Half Moon Bay, where a recent study proved parts of the economy-driving Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, were at great risk from sea level rise.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this important book is that we are all in this together. Seemingly at-odds terminology like “managed retreat” and “seawalls” needn’t be fundamentally at odds. Not if we acknowledge a shared set of facts and begin planning for a future California coast that will remain hospitable, not just for us, but for our children and our children’s children.

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