Find the latest breaking news and information on the top stories, science, business, entertainment, politics, and more.

Column: How I finally learned to care about Orange County’s crumbling coastline

On a Friday morning in October, I drove down Interstate 5 to a place I hadn’t been in years: San Clemente State Beach.

It’s at the southernmost tip of Orange County and not exactly the prettiest coastline in OC – that would be Crystal Cove. But thanks to its campgrounds, ocean waves, and hiking trails, this stretch has long been a favorite for residents and visitors alike.

Recently, transportation officials had closed off the train tracks that run just above the beach. A slow-moving landslide had shifted them more than two feet in just a year, and they were undergoing emergency repairs. Meanwhile, the Pacific Ocean crept closer and closer.

Metrolink had tried to protect the railway from the sea the previous year by dropping 18,000 tons of riprap – large, jagged, ugly stones – onto the beach. However, the move cut off access to the southern end of the beach at high tide and gave that section a post-apocalyptic appearance.

It was the latest casualty in the ongoing erosion of South Orange County’s storied coast.

In December 2018, Orange County Public Works crews used heavy machinery to remove a damaged boardwalk next to a basketball court, palm trees and light poles damaged by a storm at Capistrano Beach in Dana Point.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Over the past decade, parking lots at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point have been permanently closed. In 2018, rising tides destroyed a boardwalk and basketball court in Capistrano Beach, which were once comfortably inland. That same year, Newport Beach added 9-inch concrete caps to a seawall to prevent scenic Balboa Island from becoming the next Atlantis.

The San Clemente trouble spot was about a mile from where I parked. I headed toward the pile of rocks when I saw a wooden picnic table, sun-blasted but still sturdy. I sat down and took in the beauty of the beach to the north – and the ominous future to the south.

Not even 10 minutes had passed before construction workers approached me. Could I move? Soon a train carrying 24 gondolas and groaning tons of riprap was slowly approaching us. One by one, each train car loudly dumped its load onto the sand, sending up clouds of dust and fog.

I intended to write about what I saw, but the LA City Council racist tape scandal erupted just a few days later. Since then, the problem at San Clemente State Beach has only gotten worse.

A person and heavy machinery next to large rocks on a coast.

In September 2021, Metrolink and Amtrak were forced to suspend service between Orange and San Diego counties for several weeks as crews make emergency repairs due to beach erosion in San Clemente.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The heavy rains of winter delayed repairs to the tracks. What should have been a temporary stoppage for passenger trains lasted until early February, when weekend service resumed for Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner (the Metrolink service is still off). The Orange County Transportation Authority now expects all work to be completed by the end of March.

I returned on Sunday, right after historic storms hit Southern California. Mother Nature has lashed out at Orange County all year round.

Giant tides swept through Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach in January, tearing up an access road like it was a noodle. Rainfall has filled the Santa Ana River and its channels, a reminder of their destructive threat. The 5 Freeway North in Santa Ana, just south of the Orange Crush, was closed for hours on Saturday because a shallow puddle had covered all lanes of traffic — a surreal scene I never imagined seeing there.

The atmosphere in San Clemente seemed calmer at first. Surfers ran to the waves. Middle-aged women powerwalked the trails. Three men swept through the sand with metal detectors and sieves.

The crowds thinned out the closer I got to the riprap, until I was the last person around. In front of me were broken fire pits. Dead electrical wires twisted out of mounds of dirt. A palm tree lay on boulders like a chewed toothpick. Small, jagged rocks littered the sand where there had been none before. There was more rip-rap than ever.

The picnic table that once served as my temporary oasis was gone.

San Clemente had stayed with me all these months, and not just because of the closure of the only train route between San Diego and Los Angeles. I wondered if it was time to be sad about something I wouldn’t normally have much sympathy for.

For decades, coastal Orange County has seen itself as a world apart from those of us who live inland. It welcomes tourists from around the world to spend billions of dollars, but looks suspiciously at working-class Latinos from places like Anaheim and Santa Ana who just want a day out.

Even though I grew up about half an hour away from the coast, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve waded onto the beach in Orange County. As a teenager, stories of racist neighborhood residents and unfriendly police officers kept me away. As an adult, the politics of the coast — anti-immigrant for decades and arch-conservative, pro-pandejo during the COVID-19 era — don’t exactly motivate me to spend my money there.

South Orange County in particular represented OC at its best and silliest. Every time I passed San Clemente and Capistrano Beach, I was reminded of the late Mike Davis’ infamous essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Why feel sorry for people who can afford to move away from the ravages of climate change and who historically have never cared about the problems facing OC’s poorer cities?

I shook my head at multimillion-dollar homes built on seaside cliffs or right on the shoreline. There’s a reason why the Indians, Spaniards and Mexicans left this part of the coast largely untouched. In a battle between humans and the Pacific, the Pacific will always win.

But the missing picnic table at the riprap turned my glee into guilt. Even OC conservatives are actually pretty liberal when it comes to climate change. A 2021 survey by researchers at Chapman University found that 79% of OC residents – including 58% of Republicans – considered climate change a “serious” problem. Anyway, only six cities have adopted climate action plans — and three of them are beach cities: Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, and San Clemente.

A few days after my visit, I called Buena Park Councilman Jose Trinidad Castaneda, a longtime Democrat organizing around climate change issues. He always took the Metrolink from his hometown to San Clemente.

“If I wanted to take a day off to rest and relax and feel like I’m getting away from OC, a train ride and a hot dog on the pier was my classic escape,” he said.

But he hasn’t returned since the riprap came along – “It’s depressing to watch.”

Castaneda understands why natives may not cry about what San Clemente and other OC coastal communities endure, and vice versa.

“There should be a need and a need to care for people, but I think the way Orange County is built with single-family homes leads to the psychological disconnection,” the councilman said. “So what can people do to make people realize it’s not just about them? They are your neighbors, family, church members, colleagues.”

He suggested that during the peak of summer, coastal residents go into the interior of Orange County and “walk around all day” to feel empathy.

For me it was that picnic table.

Walking back to my car, I saw something sitting on an embankment next to the tracks, just above my head and not too far away from the riprap. It was a group of picnic tables. One of them staggered over the edge of the dike.

May it never fall.