Environment: Shrinking Shores

Overdevelopment, poor planning and nature take their toll

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Patricia and Francis O'Malley bought their summer home in Long Island's fashionable Westhampton Beach four years ago. "There used to be a dune in front and a beach in front of that," Patricia recalls. "The very first winter we had a horrible storm, and we lost the dune." Two years later gale- force winds blew the house's roof and top floor off. "We rebuilt a whole new house. Since then, we've lost 8 ft. of sand." Now, she complains, "there's water under the house. The steps are gone. The houses on both sides of ours are gone." She adds bitterly, "And they say you can't lose in real estate." The O'Malleys figure their home will wash away completely by next year. The potential loss: hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Jan and Bill Alford's troubles began during the devastating winter storms of 1982. That January a 15-ft. chunk of earth slid away from in front of their bluff-top home in Bolinas, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Francisco, and crashed to the beach below. A year later another 15 ft. vanished, leaving the house just a few feet from the edge of a 160-ft. cliff. So, in the summer of 1984, the Alfords moved their 1,300-sq.-ft. house 32 ft. back from the edge. Then came Valentine's Day 1985. Following unusually high tides, 30 ft. of land dropped into the sea. The foundation of the house remained just a foot from the precipice, with nothing but air between the guest-room deck and the surf below.

"We loved the lot," says Jan. "On a clear day, you could see all the way to San Francisco. We tried everything to save it, but the erosion just didn't stop." Last autumn the Alfords moved their home again, this time hauling it a third of a mile to a new site more than 300 ft. from the cliffside. The cost of the two moves: $80,000.

The problem is hardly limited to New York and California. The scourge of coastal erosion is felt worldwide, especially in such countries as Britain, West Germany and the Netherlands, where oceanfront property has been heavily developed. In the U.S., entire coastal areas are disappearing into the sea. Virtually every mile of shoreline is affected in every state that borders an ocean, as well as those on the five Great Lakes, where large chunks of waterfront property have been lost or damaged due to record-high water levels in recent years. Some 86% of California's 1,100 miles of exposed Pacific shoreline is receding at an average rate of between 6 in. and 2 ft. a year (the cover photo shows the coast northwest of Santa Barbara). Monterey Bay, south of San Francisco, loses as much as 5 ft. to 15 ft. annually. Cape Shoalwater, Wash., about 70 miles west of Olympia, has been eroding at the rate of more than 100 ft. a year since the turn of the century; its sparsely settled sand dunes have retreated an astounding 12,000 ft., or more than two miles, since 1910.

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