Experts assess future of beach-front life style

Looking north along the coast from atop the Torrey Pines bluffs here, there is a murky brown swath where the blue Pacific grinds away at the Del Mar shoreline. Get a little closer to the surf - say, as close as Jim Scripps' backyard - and there's an even more vivid picture of the Pacific's force.

What used to be a sandy beach is now a roiling swirl of sea water just beyond the edge of Mr. Scripps' patio. The neighbors to the north have boarded up their windows and moved out for the winter. A gaping hole has replaced a patio between their house and a foundation of loose stones.

It's a startling, and very familiar, picture for homeowners up and down California's nearly 1,200 miles of battered coastline. But it may not be as hopeless a picture as it appears. Some scientists suggest that while the sea continues to erode giant swaths of coastline, the technology that might help save the beaches - and thus the structures on them - is still just in the pioneering stage.

Meanwhile, many California beach dwellers are not intimidated by what appear to be insurmountable odds against an untouched coastal life style. Jim Scripps, for example, talks not about leaving, but about strengthening his concrete and steel reinforced sea wall.

Many outsiders view the allure of beachfront ownership as almost a siren call. How else, they ask, can you explain this kind of stubborn resistance to nature - especially in light of recent research findings. Scripps Institution of Oceanography reports that California's recent stormy years may actually be the weather norm and that the previous 30-year calm period, during which most coastal development took place, was an aberration.

This finding may strengthen the long-held, but often disregarded, argument that shoreline development is hazardous. But the fact remains that 53 percent of California's coastal zone is privately owned (according to California Coastal Commission data).

''The storms here dramatize a situation that is a national problem,'' says Orville Magoon, chief of the coastal engineering branch of the Army Corps of Engineers. There are erosion and meteorological problems from the barrier islands in the east to the Texas gulf coast to California that are not adequately addressed because of a lack of technology and information, he says.

''The only way really to convince anyone (that it is safe or unsafe to build in a particular spot) is to know what happens,'' he continues, adding ''that will take brilliant people studying why a grain of sand moves the way it does.''

''With good scientific knowledge, good planning, and good technology, we can build stable structures along the coastline,'' says Mr. Magoon. ''And some structures always have to be on the beach,'' he says.

''It's a mistake for people to wring their hands and say 'you built in the wrong place, you deserve what you get.' People do have a right to protect their property,'' says Reinhard Flick, an oceanographer at the Center for Coastal Studies at the Scripps Institute.

He says he has never promoted beach development, but adds that ''given enough money and concrete'' almost any structure can be protected. That, he says, is an attitude, though, that exacerbates coastal erosion, which has been caused by many man-made factors as well as weather conditions.

''Sand, not structures,'' explains Dr. Flick, is the key to maintaining beaches. Structural protective devices, he says, mean little without an adequate supply of sand.

Possible protective devices, according to experts, include:

* Sea walls and riprap. The concrete sea wall at Ocean Beach in San Francisco has held up more than 50 years. Sea walls require some form of bedrock to anchor to, otherwise they can be undermined. Riprap, boulders piled pyramid-style, is common, too.

* Breakwaters. These pilings away from shore dissipate waves so that their full force never hits the sand on shore. Variations of this theme being considered in a few areas include artificial reefs and seaweed.

* Longard tube. This plastic tube device, filled with sand, has been used successfully in northern Europe and, say some, has been successful in maintaining sand levels on some California beaches until the recent heavy storms. The tube, six feet in diameter, is buried parallel or in a patchwork pattern to trap sand as it is washed ashore.

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