100-Year-Old Palm Tree Is First Victim of Adamson House Erosion

A deck is dismantled after being partially destroyed by waves, alongside a 100-year-old palm tree that fell into the lagoon.

There is growing concern over recent and dramatic erosion happening at Surfrider Beach and the historic Adamson House—considered a crown jewel of Malibu’s coastline. After a century-old palm was felled by rising sea level and erosion, county workers dropped in boulders at the lagoon’s sea wall in a last-ditch effort to retain receding coastline that’s undermining the Adamson House wedding lawn and the iconic wall at Surfrider Beach.

“The front of the Adamson House is being impacted by the escarpment of water from the lagoon carving out the sand that supports the lawn and trees that dropped into the ocean,” Malibu Mayor Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, who is also the vice president of the Malibu Adamson House Foundation, explained. “The house has lost a significant amount of soil that supports the wedding lawn.” 

In total, two trees planted in the 1920s are gone, as well as a coral tree, an old outdoor shower utilized by landscape maintenance staff and some small stairs that ran to the beach.

“The water finds its lowest way out and that way is in front of the Adamson House now,” Wagner explained. “As the high tide fills the lagoon up and the low tides come back, the water flows out in front from the Adamson House, pulling the soil away from the front of the property.” 

One of many concerns for the Adamson House is the wedding lawn Wagner called “the next thing to go.” It’s the main feature for the historic venue’s fundraising for continuing maintenance. The lawn rents for $7,500 per wedding, and there are usually 30 to 40 scheduled per year. Those fees skyrocket after rentals of other essentials on the grounds, including toilets, security and a qualified ranger on site. But without the lawn, all that money dries up.

“All the infrastructure that’s related to having a wedding is now impacted because if the lawn is gone, so are the finances,” Wagner said.

Asked about a fix, Wagner clarified, “We have to wait until the snowy plover—an endangered bird—leaves the sand pile near the house.” Their nesting season should end in a couple of months.  

“When you see the orange fence that exists go down, the snowy plover is gone,” the mayor described. “Then we can move some of that sand in front of the Adamson House where it originally was. That replicates the original footprint of the sand prior to the Lagoon restoration project. The lagoon water exit would then be closer to the Colony fence.”

State Parks Angeles District Superintendent Craig Sap said the erosion is nothing new and predates the Malibu Lagoon restoration project of 2011.  

“Back then, we got an emergency coastal development permit to come in and replace rocks that were dislodged,” he said. This without trucking in new boulders. Sap called the new erosion “alarming” and “something we want to address.” However, Sap claimed erosion is happening all along the coast and is not lagoon-specific.  

“We’re experiencing coastal retreat at Leo Carrillo and Pt. Mugu,” Sap said. “There’s not much we can do at this point. We can’t build a sea wall.  That just causes erosion issues downcoast.” 

Sap defended the Malibu Lagoon restoration, saying, “There’s no evidence at all that the Malibu Lagoon has caused any of this. The project wasn’t designed to reroute (the water). It created a more healthy, effective lagoon. The creek wanted to move toward third point. The creek is going to breach where it wants to breach.” Sap says State Parks will look into possibly refortifying the sea wall. 

Graham Hamilton, Los Angeles Chapter coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation disagreed.

“When you introduce hard structure to the coast, you end up exacerbating the erosion,” he said. “The dynamic interaction of the creek and tidal action scours the beach even further and increases erosion.” LA County Beaches and Harbors dropped in boulders near the historic Malibu wall at Surfrider when it appeared erosion could undermine it.

Hamilton acknowledged erosion predated the 2011 restoration project, but he is advocating for an adaptive management program for the lagoon outlet to encourage “first flush to open toward the west.” The plan would use environmentally sensitive measures to create a channel at the western end of the lagoon where the creek historically opened during the first rains. 

“The pushback we’ve gotten is to let nature take its course,” he said. “The flaw with that logic is there isn’t any more nature down in Malibu Lagoon.  We’ve developed that watershed within an inch of its life. If we are seriously interested in keeping the cultural, biological resources intact for future generations, we have to manage the development we’ve done—that we’ve imposed on that lagoon.” 

A large number of locals and experts came to speak at the Monday, June 10, Malibu City Council meeting to urge council members to take action about erosion in the lagoon.

Council asked city staff to prepare an item “addressing development of a management plan for Malibu Lagoon” for a council meeting agenda in July.