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

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Waves rising to heights topping 20-feet (6-meters) in late December pummeled the 855-foot-long (260.6-meter) Capitola Wharf in Santa Cruz County, only months after repairs following storms in January 2023 that collapsed a large section. The Capitola Wharf is a pier by nautical standards since it runs perpendicular to the shore, versus a traditional wharf running parallel.

San Diego’s Ocean Beach pier, a nearly 2,000-foot (609.6-meter) concrete structure built in 1966, has been repeatedly battered since 2019. The pier was still undergoing repairs after beatings from high surf that closed it twice last year when a monster swell in January wiped away a piling.

The city is exploring replacing the structure after spending more than $1.7 million in fixes over the past five years. It has secured $8.4 million in state funds for a new one. Among the three proposed designs is one with interconnected pathways, giving it a different look.

California’s state park service demolished the 93-year-old pier at Seaside State Beach near Aptos in Santa Cruz County after a January 2023 storm surge smashed it in half.

Communities are grappling with whether they can afford to keep their piers, which will need taller and stronger pilings that could make their historic look more industrial, Beck said.

But those are tough conversations for many who consider the piers almost sacred.

“It’s sometimes a little bit of a funny thing here in California, the way that we love our piers,” he said.

For generations, the structures have provided families, fishers, tourists and others 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 that it calls the city’s centerpiece.

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

Rising seas, frequent storms take toll on California's iconic piers, threatening beach landmarks.
A damaged section of the Capitola Wharf that is currently being repaired on Jan. 22, 2024, in Capitola, Calif.Haven Daley / AP

California’s oldest piers served steamships and were lifelines for settlements to get lumber, bricks and cement with much of the coast decades from being reached by a railroad. Piers were later built for tourism like the Santa Monica pier, which has an amusement park with the world’s first solar-powered Ferris Wheel.

In December, Ventura’s pier already was undergoing repairs from the January 2023 storms when the monster swell that damaged San Diego’s pier around New Year’s eve also wiped away or damaged 19 pilings supporting Ventura’s pier.

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

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“We’re really seeing the confluence of all these factors coming together. And that’s going to keep happening,” Beck said. “And here in an El Nino year as well, we also see increases in sea levels, even over and above the kinds of increases that we predict long term with sea level rise.”

During a visit to Capitola last year to assess California’s widespread storm damage, President Joe Biden said global warming is challenging rebuilding efforts.

Capitola’s Public Works Director Jessica Kahn said climate change was taken into account for its $8 million pier project slated for completion this fall.

“The city went over many iterations and different designs and different tactics to make the wharf more resilient and finally settled on widening the wharf,” she said, adding that the narrow part of the trestle will go from three to six pilings.

The new pilings also will have the ability to be raised as sea levels go up.

Kahn said she has no doubt it is worth investing millions to preserve a relic of the past whose sole purpose today is for pleasure, given the number of memories soaked into the wooden wharf.

“When we had our damage here this past January of 2023, you would not believe the amount of phone calls we got. We got obviously from people nearby, but from people who come here annually, people who are out of the country,” she said.

Over the years, Inge Jechart has spent time on the pier gazing down at schools of anchovies being chased by seals as birds circle overhead.

As it undergoes repairs, she now stands on a bluff to watch the crews.

“I think they’re going to do a great job. Yes, we’re having stronger storms, and the weather is changing. But I think we can do it so that it’ll last longer,” she said. “And I think it’s absolutely worth it. It brings a community together. People love walking out there.”

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