The California coast is an edge. It’s the place where 1,100 miles of shoreline meets the largest ocean on the planet. Many different forces collide there, and a lot of exciting things happen. The coast is a geological edge, zippered to North America by 800 miles of the San Andreas Fault and battered by the Pacific Ocean.
It’s also a social, political, cultural, spiritual, economic and technological edge. It is where the most populous state and sixth-largest economy in the world is exposed to wind, waves, tides, El Niños, earthquakes and tsunamis. These forces made California’s coastline rugged, beautiful and beckoning.
But the natural beauty that has drawn so many to the edge of the Golden State has been seriously impacted by human actions. Forty-four percent of California residents live along the southern California coast, from Ventura to San Diego counties, and you can’t squeeze 18 million people into 233 miles of coast without some impacts. If they all went to the beach at the same time, each resident would have less than an inch of shoreline.
In 1972 California launched a great experiment to protect its coast. The resulting California Coastal Act sought to protect public shoreline access, wetlands and threatened coastal habitats. It also limited development to protect the beauty and grandeur of the shore for future generations.
Today California’s coastal management program is recognized around the world for its success, even as the state’s coast and ocean economy thrive. But new challenges loom large, including sea level rise, ocean acidification and proposals for offshore wind and wave energy development. California’s population continues to grow, and an internet-driven vacation-rental economy threatens the character of many coastal cities and towns.
Impacts of the postwar boom
The coast of California has attracted humans since the earliest Americans arrived, perhaps 15,000 years ago, and still draws them today. About two-thirds of the Golden State’s 39.6 million people live in coastal counties, and for good reasons. Some 75 percent of the state’s jobs are based in coastal counties. California has the nation’s largest ocean economy, valued at about $44 billion. Nearly half of that is provided by tourism and recreation.
The state’s population more than doubled between 1945 and 1970, and many of these people settled in coastal counties. Cliffs, bluffs and low-lying shoreline areas were developed as more and more new residents arrived to get their piece of the Golden State’s coast. This period of rapid coastal growth coincided with a calm climatic cycle with fewer El Niño events than the previous decades. As a result, the coast experienced relatively few damaging storms and generally mild and welcoming weather.
Rapid growth reduced public access to the shore, polluted coastal waters and led to habitat loss and development of rural agricultural lands. In 1978 the climate shifted to a 20-year period of more frequent and severe El Niños. Homes, businesses, roads, park facilities and other infrastructure – some of it newly built – suffered significant losses in the winters of 1978, 1983 and 1997-98.
Managing coastal development
In 1972, tired of inaction by the legislature, voters passed Proposition 20, building on the model of the San Franciso Bay Conservation and Development Commission – the nation’s first coastal management program. Proposition 20 launched a statewide planning process to create the California Coastal Plan – a citizen-based document that set out a vision to protect the coast for the “benefit of present and future generations” while using the resources of the coast sustainably.
At the same time six regional commissions and a statewide commission implemented an interim regulatory process for new development, acting on more than 16,000 permit applications between 1973 and 1976. The scope of this planning and regulatory scheme was unprecedented, addressing issues from marine protection to community design and character.