March 1, 2024

Rising seas and frequent storms are battering California piers, threatening iconic landmarks

More storms, rising seas and huge waves are impacting the iconic California piers that have dotted the Pacific coast since the Gold Rush, posing the biggest threat yet to the beach landmarks that have become an essential part of the landscape.

At least half a dozen public piers are closed after being repeatedly damaged by storms over the past two years. Repair costs ran into millions of dollars.

Among those closed is the Capitola Pier, built in 1857, which predates the Northern California city and is a popular place to watch passing whales and dolphins. Another storm-damaged pier in San Diego, the Ocean Beach Pier, offers a bird’s-eye view of surfers carving waves below.

More damage is possible this year from El Niño, which is expected to bring additional storms to California, caused by the temporary warming of parts of the Pacific, which changes the climate around the world. Consecutive atmospheric rivers began flooding California on Friday.

City engineers are considering redesigning piers to withstand larger waves as sea levels rise. Others face relocation or removal.

“We are in a very different environment,” said Mike Beck, director of the Center for Coastal Climate Resilience at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “And we will not be able to rebuild in the same places and in the same way as we did before. We’re going to have to think more clearly about how we design and where we put them.”

Most piers have undergone major repairs after enduring everything from fires to erosion. But authorities say they are now being harmed at an unprecedented rate.

Waves that reached heights of 6 meters (20 feet) in late December hit the 260.6-meter-long Capitola Pier in Santa Cruz County, just months after repairs were made following the January 2023 storms that collapsed a large section. The Capitola Pier is a pier by nautical standards as it runs perpendicular to the coast, unlike a traditional parallel pier.

San Diego’s Ocean Beach Pier, a nearly 2,000-foot (609.6-meter) concrete structure built in 1966, has been repeatedly damaged since 2019. The pier was still undergoing repairs after strong waves closed it twice in the last year, when a monster wave in January wiped out a pile.

The city is exploring replacing the structure after spending more than $1.7 million on repairs over the past five years. Secured $8.4 million in state funds for a new one. Among the three proposed projects is one with interconnected paths, which gives it a different look.

The California State Park Service demolished the 93-year-old pier at Seaside State Beach near Aptos in Santa Cruz County after a January 2023 storm broke it in half.

Communities are grappling with whether they can maintain their piers, which will require taller, stronger pilings that could make their historic appearance more industrial, Beck said.

But these are difficult conversations for many who consider the piers almost sacred.

“Sometimes it’s a little funny here in California how we love our piers,” he said.

For generations, the structures have provided families, fishermen, tourists and others with a peaceful place to experience the ocean without getting wet.

In Ventura, west of Los Angeles, the Visitors & Convention Bureau waxes poetic about the pier built in 1872, which it considers the city’s centerpiece.

“Walk along Ventura’s beaches and, in the distance, it wobbles like a child’s matchstick,” the agency states on its website. “Sit on the sand at its base (on a calm day) and it whispers a beautiful song that any ocean (and pier) lover knows.”

California’s oldest piers served steamships and were lifelines for settlements to obtain lumber, bricks and cement, with much of the coast decades away from being reached by railroad. Later, piers were built for tourism, such as the Santa Monica Pier, which has an amusement park with the world’s first solar-powered ferris wheel.

By December, the Ventura Pier was already undergoing repairs due to the storms of January 2023, when the monster wave that damaged the San Diego Pier on New Year’s Eve also destroyed or damaged 19 pilings supporting the Ventura Pier.

Rising sea levels due to global warming are causing waves to be bigger off the coast of California, according to research. The coast is also seeing some of the highest tides of the season.

“We are really seeing the confluence of all these factors. And this will continue to happen,” Beck said. “And here too, in an El Nino year, we also see increases in sea level, even above the types of increases that we predict in the long term with sea level rise.”

During a visit to the Capitol last year to assess widespread storm damage in California, President Joe Biden said global warming is challenging reconstruction efforts.

Capitola Public Works Director Jessica Kahn said climate change was taken into consideration in its $8 million pier project, scheduled for completion this fall.

“The city went through many iterations and different designs and different tactics to make the pier more resilient and ultimately decided to widen the pier,” she said, adding that the narrow part of the trestle will go from three to six pilings.

The new piles could also be raised as sea levels rise.

Kahn said he has no doubt that it is worth investing millions to preserve a relic of the past whose only purpose today is pleasure, given the amount of memories imbued in the wooden pier.

“When we suffered our damage here in January 2023, you wouldn’t believe the amount of phone calls we received. Obviously we receive it from people close to us, but from people who come here annually, people who are outside the country,” she said.

Over the years, Inge Jechart spent time on the pier watching schools of anchovies being chased by seals as the birds flew overhead.

While undergoing repairs, she now stands on a cliff to watch the crews.

“I think they will do a great job. Yes, we are having stronger storms and the weather is changing. But I think we can make it so it lasts longer,” she said. “And I think it’s absolutely worth it. It brings a community together. People love to walk there.”


Daley reported from Capitola, California.

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