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Climate and Environment

Storm Surge And High Tides Test OC Beaches

White spray from waves flies into the air above a line of large rectangular-shaped white bags. In the foreground there's a strip of gravel.
Waves crash up against sand bags at Capistrano Beach in Dana Point during the King Tide on Dec. 23, 2022.
(Jill Replogle
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First, the year's highest tides, and now a storm surge is hitting Orange County beaches, testing the stability of the region’s most vulnerable coastlines.

A high surf advisory is in effect for coastal Orange County through Thursday afternoon, with waves of 5 to 8 ft. and dangerous rip currents expected, according to the National Weather Service.

The advisory follows the King Tides, which hit just before Christmas, where waves crashed up against a wall of riprap at Capistrano Beach in Dana Point. On Dec. 23, the tide hit 7 ft. just after 8 a.m.

King Tides are a natural occurrence that happens when the gravitational pull of the sun, moon and Earth align. But King Tides — especially when combined with storm surges — also give us a glimpse into a future with higher sea level.

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What's Going On At Capistrano Beach

At Capo Beach, as it's known, rising tides could eventually swallow the tiny bit of beach that's left, plus a row of multi-million dollar homes, then the only road to get to those homes, and ultimately the coastal railroad tracks and the Pacific Coast Highway.

Already, the railroad tracks a bit further south, at Cyprus Shore, are under emergency repair because the tracks are in danger of sliding into the ocean. Passenger train service through the area was suspended in late September and isn't expected to resume until February.

Capistrano Beach Park has already seen its volleyball courts, basketball court, picnic tables and half of its parking lot lost to the oncoming waves over the last few decades. The loss is not just for locals but for millions of other people who visit south Orange County beaches each year, said Toni Nelson, founder of the group Capo Cares.

"There's a big value in the public use of these spaces," she said.

The Threat To California's Beaches

Coastal erosion is normal. But we've also radically altered the coast and the natural processes that replenish beaches by building harbors and housing developments, and channeling rivers through concrete culverts. Combined with sea level rise, that means a potential future with much less of this iconic Southern California resource.

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"It's really sad," said Nick Roman, who's been coming to Capistrano Beach for almost 40 years. Roman, who hosts our newsroom's All Things Considered show on 89.3 FM, used to shoot hoops on the basketball court and run on the sand — when there was a court, and when there was sand.

It shows you kind of the march of time. It also makes you wonder, 'What have we done? Could we have prevented it?'
— Nick Roman

"It shows you kind of the march of time," he said. "It also makes you wonder, 'What have we done? Could we have prevented it? Should there have even been a basketball court here?'"

The Backstory

A map shows location of Capistrano Beach in relation to Dana Point Harbor to its northwest.
Location of beach.
(Courtesy OC Parks)

When Dana Point Harbor was built in the 1960s, federal authorities dumped large quantities of sand on Capistrano Beach and neighboring Doheny State Beach to mitigate the changes in sediment flow caused by harbor construction. But without continual sand replenishment, the beach began to disappear.

"For about 40 years, we had the illusion that we had a really good beach, because we did," Nelson said. "But every year, it got shorter and shorter and shorter, and nobody ever thought to replace it."

Instead local authorities have resorted to emergency fixes in recent years, like piling riprap along the edge of the remaining parking lot.

What's Next

Now, a longer-term solution might be coming.

The California Coastal Commission approved a pilot project in November to build what's called a living shoreline at Capistrano Beach — cobblestones topped by sand dunes topped by vegetation — designed to blunt the force of the waves.

Living shorelines have been built in a few other places in Southern California and seem to be successful, but Capistrano Beach is so eroded that some question whether it's too late.

"It seems like a very expensive try," Nelson said, but "imagine the cost of moving the railroad, the cost of moving PCH … there's just too much to lose."

The living shoreline project is currently in the design phase. OC Parks is still short at least $8 million to make the experiment a reality.

Have a question about Orange County?
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