West Coast
Seacliff Pier is seen heavily damaged by a rainstorm in Santa Cruz County, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

CA - Storm Recovery Begins at Beloved State Beach in Santa Cruz County

On Jan. 5, a frightening storm clobbered Seacliff State Beach and its famous ocean pier leading to a sunken cement ship off the coast of Santa Cruz County.

A high tide carried over 15-foot waves ashore, flipping cement benches and smashing driftwood through bathroom doors. The ground collapsed, forming sinkholes in the park’s day use and campground areas, and over half of its iconic pier was destroyed.

This storm was one of the nine atmospheric river storms that would pummel Northern California in a span of three weeks. Landslides from the storm parade persisted for many days.

Anticipating sea level rise and climate change, the state may need to relocate camping and gathering sites and set bathrooms back from the formidable Pacific Ocean. Officials also are considering building coastal dunes as a buffer against powerful storm waves.

Scott Shepherd, a California State Parks employee, speculates that many coastal California parks will inevitably have to do the same: reassess what recreational activities they can provide in the future.

“We don't want people to lose hope,” Shepherd said. He still foresees RV camping, field trips and fishing returning to Seacliff. “It just may look a little different than it has before.”

Jill Polizzi and Alice Cannella have walked the length of Seacliff State Beach in Santa Cruz County for over 15 years. The longtime friends often stroll along the park's accessible walkways, preferring that to their own neighborhood and its streets without sidewalks.

On Jan. 25, three weeks after unprecedented storms caused expensive damage to the park, they’re back — with a stroller and sunhats. Unfortunately, for now, their ritual is cut short by large fences.

“It's sad now that they've blocked off the other end,” Polizzi said. “I just hope they can afford to get all this back to normal.” The Jan. 5 storm cut power to Polizzi’s block for three days.

These kinds of storms aren’t new for California, or necessarily caused by climate change, said Gary Griggs, an oceanographer with UC Santa Cruz. A similar storm hit the park 40 years ago, for example. But climate models predict wetter atmospheric rivers, more landslides and more flooding in the state’s future.

“Sea level is going to continue to rise, so anything on the shoreline is probably going to be more and more affected as the years and the decades go by,” Griggs said.

Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that California's winter storms could get wetter and cover larger areas. They detailed their findings in a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Their soggy storm projections were based on worst-case climate scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions not reducing.

Ruby Leung, an atmospheric scientist and author on the study, said Californians should engineer more resilient buildings and bridges.

“The information that we used before to design the infrastructure may not be relevant anymore,” she said.

Investing in stronger infrastructure

The January storm brought down Seacliff’s retaining wall, which now needs reengineering. Its job was to protect the park’s campsites and roadways from the ocean. The wall, which has been destroyed eight times now, should be rebuilt differently, Griggs said, fortified with steel and larger wood logs.

State park employees are discussing which materials to use, hoping to brace the retaining wall for rising sea levels coupled with larger storms, said Chris Pereira, the Santa Cruz district roads and trails manager for California State Parks.

Everything is on the table, he said, from rebuilding the wall as-is, bolstering it with steel or large rocks, or building dunes, stabilized with plants, logs and rocks.

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