Riprap Retreat

Riprap Retreat

High tide in Oceanside

The Gin and Tonic in my hand is sweating as am I.  

It’s after 5:00 p.m. and the sun is still blazing here in Oceanside, California, where I am vacationing with the family. The land of Top Gun and Tom Cruise, this is where the Preston family hangs for two weeks every summer. John, my husband, was a kid when his family started coming here in the 1970’s. 

I got pulled into the Preston beach ritual when we started dating so many sunsets ago.

Glancing about, I see the various rental properties we’ve outgrown over the years. 

All look pretty much the same. 

What doesn’t is the beach.  

Where white sand once reigned supreme, wet shore and rushing surf rule the day. A loosely linked system of boulder walls known as ripraps or revetments are all that separate oceanfront properties from the rising tideline.

Ripraps in Oceanside, CA
Ripraps in Oceanside, CA

It wasn’t always like this—

I can remember a time, not so long ago, when my sister-in-law and I would audibly groan when it came time to haul our kids and their many sand accessories onto the beach. Sunscreened and sun-shirted, we’d get everyone settled in the sand when someone–inevitably–would call out for a diaper change or a bathroom run or a trip to the emergency room because one kid mistook a rock for a clod of sand she threw at her cousin. And so a return trek to the house would commence, across burning hot sand.

Not anymore.  

Given all the coastal shrinkage here and elsewhere, I could fling everything my kids needed for a day from the upstairs balcony not 20 feet behind me and call it a day.

Unable to safely sit beside the shore, we now sit above it, on a combo patio/private beach about the size of a handball court. To reach the water requires picking one’s way down make-shift steps cemented between the boulders of the property’s riprap. At high tide, the waves crash against the walls with all the force of Poseidon after a bad day.

The responsibility of the property owner, ripraps come in all shapes and sizes–some more legal than others. The riprap protecting the glorified sandbox on which I now sit, seems particularly sturdy. Not so the one to my left which looks like King Kong put a fist through it. The riprap on my right is in slightly better shape, thanks, ironically, to a bank of sandbags.

Sandbags. At the beach…who would have thought.

Within the panoply of wall types, ripraps are among the most controversial. Like their border wall brethren, sea walls (including ripraps), cleave public opinion one of two ways: sea walls are good because they protect property and communities or they are bad because they impede the natural flow of tide and the shifting of sand, thus causing coastal erosion and devastated surf breaks.

Riprap or no riprap, the issue may be a moot point in the future. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey  sounded the alarm years ago that if sea levels continue rising at their current pace, two-thirds of Southern California beaches could be underwater by the year 2100. 

Ripraps in Oceanside, CA

Leaning forward in my beach chair, I peer over the riprap to the heavily excavated shoreline below, noting the rising water level and wonder if the USGS projections may need revising. 

My friends who live here say there are plans under discussion to add jetties along the coast and maybe a fake reef. A repeat round of offshore sand dredging is also on the list of possibilities that could help restore the beachfront–for a time.

What my friends didn’t say, that I later learned from reading local news reports, is the future possibility of wide-scale  “managed retreat” from coastal areas deemed indefensible against rising sea levels. Under this scenario, blocks of oceanfront property like the one at my rear, would be abandoned–in a pre-planned manner–to a Pacific Ocean 6 to 10 feet higher than it is today.

Suddenly aware of the fleeting sand at my feet, I grip the topmost boulder of the riprap with my bare toes and hold fast, savoring the moment—and the G&T—as if both were my last here at the beach. 

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