Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Pushing against the waves


Riprap–piles of large rocks placed between the surf and houses–provides some measure of protection for beachfront property owners.

Coastal Neskowin prepares for climate change and beach erosion, with help from researcher Peter Ruggiero

By Nathan Gilles

Bill Busch drives his car through the small Oregon coast town of Neskowin. He stops in the driveway of a shingle-sided house with large picture windows, some 30 feet from the beach. There's a portable basketball pole that's toppled over at the driveway's far end. We soon find out why. Busch, fellow Neskowin residents Alex Sifford and Guy Sievert, and I pile out of the car into a very wet, very windy, winter afternoon.

Following a small path along the house, we pass knee-high, American beachgrass peeking out of the foredunes all around us. Then we arrive at Neskowin's beach. Not far off, the Pacific Ocean's rough winter waves are pummeling the narrow shoreline. To my left is a heap of stones. To my right is open seashore.

"Is this where it ends?" I ask, pointing toward the rocks.

"Yeah," shouts Sifford above the wind.

I'm looking at an intentionally stacked assemblage of large, dark-brown rocks that form a seven-foot barrier in front of the house. Called riprap, the rocks are part of an engineering effort known as "armoring" or "hardening," intended to protect Neskowin's shoreside homes from the ravages of the Pacific Ocean.

Here in mostly low-lying Neskowin–just barely above sea level&ndsash;riprap of various heights stretch the length of the town from where we're standing to the bluffs overlooking Proposal Rock, a "haystack" formation that juts out of the beach some two miles to the south. This armoring&ndsash;installed at homeowners' expense–is the first line of defense. Neskowin has against some very real threats from the sea.

Over a mere three decades, Neskowin has lost roughly 2 meters of its beach per year to the Pacific. Over the recorded period from 1965 to 2000, this resulted in some 70 meters of erosion. Much of this loss has been due to a series of observed trends that includes growing wave heights, powerful El Niños, and surprisingly massive winter storms. It's not yet known whether these trends will persist into the future. Still, researchers conclude Oregon's coast can expect more erosion, collapsing hillsides, and increased flooding, with places like Neskowin acting as "hotspots" for these changes. Nonetheless, Neskowin's residents–Busch, Sifford, and Sievert among them–aren't standing idly by.

In 2009, Neskowin residents hoping to make their town more resilient in the face of these changes formed the Neskowin Coastal Hazards Committee, or NCHC. Through the NCHC and its numerous community meetings, Neskowin homeowners have been leading an effort to transform how their town responds to the Pacific Ocean's hazards.

Partnering with local elected leaders and local and state agency staff, Oregon State University scientists, and Oregon Sea Grant, NCHC members drafted an ambitious 300-page document called the Neskowin Adaptation Plan that details the science of these changes. But this one-of-a-kind plan goes a step further. It suggests a series of far-reaching regulations that could determine how and where people can build in town.

Neskowin, like many small communities in Tillamook County, is unincorporated. This places lawmaking authority in the county's hands. As of this writing, the Neskowin Adaptation Plan was being reviewed by Tillamook County and state land-use planners. A commission vote is expected later this year.

For now, NCHC's adaptation strategies are limited to Neskowin only. However, the Neskowin Adaptation Plan could become the testing ground for a larger Tillamook County-wide plan, which will be voted on only after the Neskowin sub plan is first approved. And this reversal of order isn't the only way the Neskowin plan has been creating change from the bottom up. State land-use planners are also expected to use many of the sub plan's suggestions as a template for their own recommendations for the coast.

What follows is the story of how motivated citizens–with a little help from the right people, including coastal researcher Peter Ruggiero–are leading Oregon's effort to stay resilient and save lives and property in the face of a changing and dangerous coastal environment.

To continue reading, download the Summer 2014 PDF edition of Oregon Sea Grant's Confluence.

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