Placeholder Image photo credit: Noah Abrams/KRCB
Coastal bluffs on the Northern California coast.

The coast is for many the epitome of Sonoma County’s natural beauty beloved for its seaside towns and rugged, wide open spaces.

But seeing the future of the Sonoma coast means embracing its constant movement.

Big proposals like the Bodega Bay nuclear power plant in the 1960's, or the Fort Ross pumped hydro electric facility today easily capture public attention and spur opposition, but there’s one powerful force that changes the Sonoma Coast every minute of every day: the ocean.

"We are in a situation where sea level is rising and we have a lot of infrastructure along the coast," Brendan O'Neil said.

O’Neil is a natural resource manager for California State Parks. O’Neil said the tension between our buildings and rising waves is only going to continue.

"You can't move those houses once the property is gone," O'Neil said. "This is some of the most valuable real estate in the entire world. We also have a lot of coastal dependent facilities. If you think about like the San Francisco Bay Area or or other locations, harbors, ports, sewage treatment, plants, airports, all those things."

To protect the Bay Area from sea level rise and storm surges by 2050, Bay Area transportation and conservation officials estimate the bill will cost at least 110 billion dollars.

That's with base sea levels predicted to rise by nearly a foot and a half in the next 27 years.

On the Sonoma Coast, characteristics of the land are as much a factor in coastal erosion as the sea, said Doug George.

"The whole coastline of Northern California is very tectonically active," George said. "And so it's been lifting out of the ocean, and what it's been lifting out is, is very erodible rock. And over time those cliffs obviously are gonna be collapsing from wave and precipitation from rain events."

George is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management. As the climate changes, so too have weather patterns, and George said storms are having a noticeable impact.

"You know what's interesting is over time, both the wave energy that's been hitting the coastline and the the rain events have actually been increasing in their strength and in their power," George said. "Waves are 24% stronger now than they were in the mid 20th century."

O’Neil said those impacts have been felt in the last year.

"The toes of our bluffs, so the base of the bluff was eroded as well in a number of places," O'Neil said. "And when you think about the way that coastal bluffs function, removing the bottom of it isn't necessarily good for the long term stability."

And O’Neil said maintaining “vertical access” is a constant fight.

"This is what we call the access that leads down to the beach," O'Neil said. "So all the stairwells getting down bluffs, those areas get destroyed on an annual basis."

You can find an example of that destruction at Bodega Dunes State Park, winter storms wiped out the ADA ramp down to the sand.

O’Neil said questions around infrastructure, housing, and development on the coast remain unanswered, for now.

"There's not necessarily a czar that's gonna solve all of this for us," O'Neil said.

  • SoCo Calendar
  • Right Now
  • Weather
  • Earthquakes
  • First News
thumbnail FirstNews logoA weekday early morning podcast that offers a first look at the top local news stories and weather forecast you need to start your day.

Sonoma County news stories featuring the latest in breaking news, county government, elections, environment, cultural happenings, and updates on your communities, from Petaluma to Cloverdale, and from Sonoma to Bodega Bay, and everyplace in between.

Subscribe to the Sonoma County First News podcast through our website, the NorCal Mobile App, NPR Podcasts, NPR One, iTunes/Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Read More

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.