January 31, 2010, 4:00PMJaime Francis/The Oregonian
Newskowin beach at sunset.For more than a decade, the village of Neskowin has watched the ocean chew away at its shoreline, gobbling up as much as half a football field of beach in places. Homes have been threatened, riprap has failed and some ground-level condos are not habitable during the stormier months. Now, the locals have formed a committee aimed at saving their oceanfront way of life. And not a moment too soon, say scientists, who warn that the Pacific is trying to work its way right into the heart of town.
"The future is pretty bleak for Neskowin," said Jonathan Allan, coastal geomorphologist with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. "What we've seen is that 10 to 15 years ago, Neskowin had a very broad beach, a very well-developed fore dune that provided protection to homes built there.
"Today, virtually the entire length of Neskowin (which is about 20 feet above sea level) is protected by riprap," he said, referring to the stacks of boulders used to protect shorelines. "The entire shoreline has been hardened and if you actually look at the history of that shoreline-hardening process, the bulk of it has gone in since 1999."
The bright side is that the work Neskowin does today may provide the answers for coastal communities facing the same problems in the future -- a highly likely scenario, Allan said. Scientists with Oregon State University and the state Geology and Mineral Industries Department believe that not only is the sea level rising, but they have recently determined that maximum wave heights -- those mammoth waves that occur offshore during the winter months -- have risen dramatically from a previously estimated 33 feet to as much as 46 feet.
"Possible causes might be changes in storm tracks, higher winds, more intense winter storms, or other factors," said Peter Ruggiero, an assistant professor at OSU's Department of Geosciences. "These probably are related to global warming, but it could also be involved with periodic climate fluctuations ... and our wave records are sufficiently short that we can't be certain yet. But what is clear (is) the waves are getting larger." And they're taking their toll on the coastline. Neskowin's problems became apparent in the late 1990s after two winter storm seasons devoured the beaches. "There was a tremendous erosion," said Guy Sievert, a member of the Neskowin Coastal Hazards Committee. "We started coming here in 1990. We used to stay on the oceanfront and there was never a sense of threat; there was plenty of beach.
All that really changed in the late 1990s." Sievert went so far as to sell a house in the village so he could move to higher ground. "Just the other day, we all woke up to logs and debris as you come in to Neskowin," he said. "The storm surge brought logs and deposited them in the streets. It flooded the streets. It surprises you."
Two vulnerable towns Rockaway, to the north, is in a similar predicament, having lost about 164 yards of beach in recent years. The two towns on Oregon's north coast are particularly vulnerable because both have a long history of settlement and intense development, Allan said. Now, it's no longer the problem of individual homeowners but of the entire community. "The issue that may be coming to the foreground and may become a bigger issue in the future is what happens when homeowners can't pay the high cost to keep riprap in place?" Allan asked. "If they walk away, who is going to step in if that structure fails?" Neskowin has 408 houses, 94 of which are occupied full time by 169 residents.
The cost to maintain the riprap can easily reach into thousands of dollars, and maintenance can be necessary on a yearly basis, Allan said. Two years ago, when the riprap north of Proposal Rock failed, the waves came within hours of destroying a home. "That riprap is the lifeline for Neskowin now, and that's why they are struggling with the issue of what to do," he said. Outreach to experts That's where the Neskowin Coastal Hazards Committee comes in. Recently awarded a grant of about $20,000 from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, the group of scientists, professors, state and county employees is reaching out to experts worldwide for help.
"We are just looking for options and opportunities," said Tillamook County Commissioner Mark Labhart, who chairs the committee. "This is the first time it's been done as far as we know on the West Coast. We are trying to gauge the latest science. We're breaking new waves here -- forgive the pun -- trying to address this issue." Possibilities include trucking in sand, constructing vertical walls, or building barriers offshore beneath the water line. But all are extremely expensive and not necessarily doable. It's possible that nature will provide its own fix, as it did in Pacific City after storms scoured the beaches in the 1970s.
The community brought in riprap to protect a new subdivision only to see it disappear under a new deposit of sand, Allan said. The trouble is no one can say for sure when that might occur in Neskowin, or if it will. So the quest to save the village goes on. Sievert says Neskowin is caught between two terrible options: "Building the wall higher and higher, which will destroy the beach, and just letting the ocean have its way. "There are pictures of Neskowin back in the '20s and '30s of the ocean coming all the way to the golf course," he added. "We've created an artificial barrier to the ocean and now how do we preserve what we've created as much as possible, and yet understand the ocean is a natural system you cannot control? Given what we understand, we have not seen the worst of it.