In Bay Area, Battle Against Crumbling Coast

fromKQED

Construction crews are battling the Pacific Ocean to save a cliff-top apartment building in Pacifica, a San Francisco suburb. It's the kind of scenario likely to occur up and down the West coast in years to come, as climate change and rising sea levels threaten oceanfront properties.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In the San Francisco suburb Pacifica, construction crews are battling the ocean. They're trying to save a cliff-top apartment building. It's the kind of scene likely to occur up and down the West Coast in years to come, as climate change and rising sea levels threaten oceanfront properties. And it raises a key question: Who will pay for it all?

Tara Siler of member station KQED reports.

TARA SILER: If you have a fear of heights, you don't want to be here on an apartment balcony 80 feet above the beach; and the land that used to lie between the balcony and the Pacific Ocean has collapsed.

Crews are now working to save this 20-unit apartment building by driving 50-foot structural nails into the cliff. Project supervisor Tony Fortunato sounds confident he can stop the Pacific Ocean in its tracks.

Mr. TONY FORTUNATO: So we're putting a series of rows you see the row of nails here. We're going to have 11 rows all the way down. It'd be about 244 nails. So then we'll tie the rebar on it, and then we'll put a mesh and then we're going to shoot shotcrete. And that's what we're going to do. We're going to save this hill.

SILER: A crane suspends two workers in a basket 75 feet above the beach. They're drilling the giant nails into the cliff face. Next to the apartment building, geotechnical engineer Alan Kropp uses a drill rig and other equipment to test the bluff's soil strength.

Mr. ALAN KROPP (Geotechnical Engineer): It's a very challenging environment. What we're doing is buying time, maybe 50 years, hopefully even longer than 50 years, at a significant price.

SILER: A more comprehensive fix, including constructing a seawall along this stretch of coast, means the neighbors would also have to chip in. Fortunato estimates that would cost about $6 million.

Mr. FORTUNATO: They're all going to have to get on the same page, basically. I mean, this is like a step in the total fix.

SILER: Some residents have talked about getting federal help to pay for the work, but that's unlikely. Not enough people are affected, and the bluff's history of erosion and risk is well known. The situation here is a familiar one on California's coast.

And Peter Gleick, director of Oakland's Pacific Institute, says climate change is going to make it worse.

Dr. PETER GLEICK (Director, Pacific Institute, Oakland): Parts of the coast are going to be increasingly vulnerable to flooding and are going to see more and more erosion in the coming years.

SILER: And what - so when you say the building too close, what is considered too close? Is there I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GLEICK: That's a great question. I guess the easiest answer is you built too close to the coast if the piece of coast you built on disappears before the building falls down by itself.

SILER: But when most of the coastal development took place, the effects of climate change were unheard of. Because of that, Laura Tam of the San Francisco Planning and Research Association says there may be a case for some sort of government assistance. But regardless, she says, these areas should be planning for future problems.

Ms. LAURA TAM (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association): Pacifica and other coastal towns will need to potentially evaluate properties and infrastructure that may be at risk in the future from emergency erosion or sea-level rise and come up with some kind of managed retreat strategy.

SILER: Back in Pacifica, people marvel at nature's power. Jason Gonzales(ph) lives near the threatened apartment building. He thought it was dangerous even before the bluff started sliding into the Pacific.

Mr. JASON GONZALES: When I heard the story that they said at high surf that the water in the toilet bowl started swishing around, it's like you've got to be kidding, you know? So...

SILER: Would you want to live in those apartments?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GONZALES: No. No. What a question. No.

SILER: And how does project supervisor Tony Fortunato respond to those who say you can't fight the Pacific?

Mr. FORTUNATA: You know, I'm in a business of fooling Mother Nature is what I tell them. Basically, we don't feel as though it's time to throw in the towel at this point. We wouldn't be doing this if we did.

SILER: But, he adds, they'll have to finish the job fast before even more of the bluff gives way.

For NPR News, I'm Tara Siler.

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