NewsNational PoliticsThe Race


Coastal erosion and sea-level rise changing landscape of community

Posted at 1:03 PM, Jan 08, 2021

PACIFICA, Calif. — Pacifica, California is perched on the bluffs and the sands outside of San Francisco. It’s a place families have called home for generations.

Robby Bancroft and his father, Steve, have lived here nearly all of their lives. It’s where they opened up their own restaurant, Breakers, named for the crashing waves just feet away.

"Breakers is literally like me and my dad's home,” said Robby Bancroft. “It's our heart.”

The four walls are an irreplaceable reminder of their triumph.

“This restaurant means everything to me,” said Steve Bancroft. “The restaurant business saved my life.”

“If you've seen the movie Finding Nemo, you know me and my dad's story,” said Robby. “He raised me as a single father. He worked at Chili's seven days a week. He worked at a breakfast place, and that's where he kind of fell in love with the single parent be able to be home with their kids."

When they finally opened the doors of their own breakfast spot six years ago, it was the beginning of a new chapter.

“We lost our house in the 2008-2009 housing crisis, and we've, we've kind of clawed our way out of this hole,” said Robby.

They hope to pass their success on to future generations of their family, but looking down the line, there’s a big question: What will mother nature have in store for their oceanside community?

“There’s definitely been trends and changes, even throughout the years before I was even alive. We have experienced some waves coming in and coming into the doors,” said Robby.

Their town’s shoreline is eroding, and as our planet warms, the sea is rising, adding up to changes in the landscape. Neighbors across the community agree--change is happening in Pacifica before their eyes.

“There's that weird kind of conversation of, ‘We shouldn't even be having these discussions because it's so far into the future,’” said Cindy Abbott, who lives just one block from the ocean in Pacifica. “Well here, once again, the street’s closed off."

Abbott was describing the barricades on the end of her street put in place when flooding happens from the ocean.

“In fact, right here in 2016 was the last large sinkhole and this whole area was closed off for, I think six months," she recalled.

“Waves hit it, they're always crashing, and so it's just a constant vibration going on,” said Lesley Ewing, a senior coastal engineer with the California Coastal Commission. “Eventually, the bluffs are going to erode.”

Ewing has watched the beaches in Pacifica slowly vanish for decades. One bluff used to hold apartments, but after crumbling, it sits empty. All the families there had to leave the buildings closest to the ocean.

Ewing said erosion and sea-level rise are intensifying here, and the community should prepare to move farther away from the ocean: a process referred to as “Managed Retreat.”

“We'd rather have people do managed retreat, in those cases where protection is not going to be effective, not going to work, rather than have people in the middle of the night have to pull out a few objects that are precious to them from their houses because it's unsafe for them to be there,” said Ewing.

Longtime Pacifica resident Cindy Abbott agrees.

“I love where I live. I mean, how fortunate am I that I live this close to the ocean and get to enjoy it every single day? But I also want to figure out what the balance is between our rights to today, or what we feel are our human rights today, and what our obligation is to future generations,” Abbott said.

Much of this issue is created by Pacifica’s landscape and geography. This community was not built on bedrock, what’s underneath these homes is not much stronger than sand.

The combination of the warming planet with soft land and structures on the edge is creating an example of what climate change is capable of.

“We’re at this crisis point where things are being hammered and battered and structures are being demolished, so it’s sorts of ground zero,” said Gary Griggs, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Griggs believes this is an issue needing attention immediately and by more than just the communities on the coast. He said it comes down to lessening the major factor at play: greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the Earth and rising sea levels.

“The higher sea level gets, the more problematic it will be, the more the waves will reach the cliff, the faster coastal erosion will proceed. We need to slow down climate change as fast as we can. The faster we move, the more impact we can have on slowing sea-level rise and the less problems we will have in the future. We cannot stop it tomorrow.”

In Pacifica, city leaders want to intervene right away to save Pacifica as it stands today by building barriers to keep the ocean at bay.

“Managed retreat is something that the city does not support,” said Pacifica’s Mayor Sue Beckmeyer.

Mayor Beckmeyer says the city is now working now on a plan with the Coastal Commission. She is hopeful all groups can come together on a plan that allows the community to have access to the beach and attract visitors to Pacifica’s shores.

“The reason that we need to rebuild the seawall, the reason we need to keep that promenade available is because it's not just Sharp Park’s ocean and pier, it's not just Pacifica’s, it's not just California’s. It's the whole country's,” said Beckmeyer.

While the long terms plans are decided, the families of Pacifica are left wondering what will happen in the decades to come.

“I think I will be around long enough to see the effects, and I think it'll happen sooner than a hundred years,” said Robby Bancroft. "But I can't tell you how soon. I just know that it's getting worse, and so we really need to do something about it.”

Bancroft, like many others, is hoping any plan comes soon so the entire community can safely prepare for the changes to come.

In the meantime, Cindy Abbott started a community art exhibit in town to discuss climate change and how the community should respond.

“I'm the executive director at Sanchez Arts Center here in town, and the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability had a grant proposal that they were offering on coastal resilience. So, it wasn't necessarily creating an object about sea-level rise or piece of art, but creative engagement in the community."

"One part of the project is creating a new lexicon, new words to help describe our feelings or how we're going to need to move forward in this process. So, one word that we created early on is ‘Wedapt,’ and the thought behind that word is, how do we as a community come together to adapt to what we need to face? I would hope that in continuing to explore these conversations that people can start thinking about what is it they want their legacy to be for this community,” said Abbott.

As this conversation continues, the Bancrofts are preparing to keep their doors open, no matter what.

“We know we'll survive because that's what we do,” said Bancroft. "I just get chills and tears almost like thinking about what would happen if me and my dad's home was threatened again.”

The issue is complex and will take decades to solve, but all who live this reality or study the happenings in this beautiful beach town know, action must happen today to protect the future of this city tomorrow.