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The pre-and post-settlement history of coastal California is likely familiar to most Southern Californians, and the most well known scenario imagines a flourishing coastal plain landscape with wetlands and estuaries supporting an abundance of plant and animal species. But after decades of intensive development, less than 10% of the original coastal wetlands remains along the California’s southern coastline. In other words, post-settlement, paradise was paved.

One problem with paving, armoring, and channelizing is that the strategy does not address the fluid and dynamic character of the natural systems that provides protection. Sediment flows from the mountains and plains, depositing onto the coast via the movement of water. Ocean currents and wave action redistribute this material, with coastal bluffs collapsing into the ocean, nourishing beaches. Paving, armoring, and channelizing are brittle solutions that offer a temporary solution, but ultimately require more paving, armoring, and channelizing to continue to provide effective protection against these natural cycles and systems.

This points to another problem with applying brittle solutions to protect development: the tremendous loss of public trust land. According to the California State Lands Commission, the Public Trust Doctrine “protects sovereign lands, such as tide and submerged lands and the beds of navigable waterways, for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the public.”

While utilizing hard engineering solutions to address the fluidity and episodically destructive forces of natural systems has undoubtedly saved lives and protected private property, the long-term cumulative result is a staggering loss of California beaches, bluffs, and wetlands – all distinguishing features of the California landscape that attract people to visit, stay, and continually fuel a demand for more development.

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Because our species doesn’t carry our homes on our backs like the permanent inhabitants of the coastal zone like mollusks, crabs, and shellfish, our species must find flexible solutions to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of the coastal zone – including the cycle of sediment deposit – or risk losing the hallmark of the Public Trust Doctrine:

“The trust lands belong to the public and are to be used to promote publicly beneficial uses that connect the public to the water.”

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