Erosion appears to be worsening on PCH

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These photos taken Jan. 6 and 11, show the eroded embankment coming up to the Pacific Coast Highway near Coastline Drive in Malibu. Resident Bryan Ney estimates 2 feet of soil between the PCH curb and wet sand. Photos by Bryan Ney

A series of storms battering California appears to be worsening erosion on a vulnerable Malibu beach. 

Yellow caution tape extends along a 50-yard stretch of embankment on Pacific Coast Highway just north of Coastline Drive. This precarious ridge of sand abutting Malibu’s thoroughfare into Santa Monica and Los Angeles looks dangerously close to crumbling into the Pacific below. An LA County Beaches and Harbors crew placed the caution tape to keep beachgoers off the unstable shoulder “in the interest of public safety,” according to its spokesperson. But the agency also claims “protecting the highway itself is Caltrans’ responsibility.” 

There appears to be a case of finger-pointing as to which agency has jurisdiction and responsibility over the relevant area. Last October, when The Malibu Times wrote about this problematic stretch of land where the beach meets the roadway, a Caltrans spokesperson wrote “The only area that currently has damage is on the portion of shoreline that is under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors. They have been notified. Since no current repairs are required on Caltrans’ right of way, the Maintenance ticket was closed. However, our Maintenance Division continues to consistently monitor the shoulder of State Route 1 (PCH) along that stretch of roadway.” 

Beaches and Harbors had claimed the crumbling revetment beneath PCH was built by Caltrans. This week a Caltrans spokesperson once again addressed the erosion, emailing The Malibu Times, “The area where the erosion is occurring still belongs to Los Angeles County Beaches and Harbors. As previously noted, until the erosion occurs within the Caltrans Highway Right of Way, the department cannot take action as an emergency response.” Public Information Officer Marc Bischoff also wrote the area is regularly inspected after every storm.

Perhaps no one is monitoring the situation more closely than Dr. Bryan Ney. As a three-decade resident of nearby Sunset Mesa, Ney walks his neighborhood beach frequently. He brought the situation to the attention of Caltrans a few years ago. Ney has voiced concerns that if the state waits for the roadway to crumble rather than fixing it now, one of only two lanes of traffic could be blocked for an extended period for repairs which would impact Malibu commuters. “I’ve been concerned the shoulder is going to be undermined. I was trying to get them (CT) to act and put boulders up there.” 

In Ney’s periodic checks, including photos from Jan. 6 after one of the storms passed through Malibu “the waves had washed up right to the edge.” 

Ney has witnessed a bucket sized clump of sand falling onto the beach. 

“It’s actively eroding and I’m concerned,” he said. “The thing I noticed this time is that the erosion comes really close to a light pole. If we get a big enough storm, I’m concerned that is going to undermine that pole and make it a public safety problem.” 

Photos Ney submitted to TMT show the progression of erosion near Coastline Drive. The bottom photo was taken in July 2021. 

“If somebody looks at photos from week to week, things don’t look much different, but if you look at the longer progression you can see,” he said. “One picture shows the beach is wet right up to the edge — that means the waves have been lapping right up to there. Another photo shows a big crack. Once you’ve got a crack like that it just can’t heal. It’s going to go soon. If that pole goes that’s a real public safety concern. If there’s a collapse it is a risk also to people on the beach.

“It’s going to be a problem for people in Malibu if they have to close down the road because the shoulder’s been eroded and they’ve got to shore it up.” 

As a physician, Dr. Ney earlier told TMT “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” adding “They’ll have to expend a lot more effort and money to fix it if it actually erodes.” 

Ney says Caltrans assured him last week that his concerns and photos were forwarded to the agency’s engineers, but Ney says he’s not confident the agency will act fast enough. The Malibu resident acknowledges Caltrans is dealing with other urgent storm related flooding and issues. “They’ve got their hands full,” he said. 

And Caltrans did confirm this week, “We’ve been very busy with road damage and closures with these most recent storms.” 

Ney said he thought TMT’s earlier coverage of the situation got their attention and hopes they will follow through.