Researchers study effects of beach erosion in Tillamook County

The manager of Rockaway Beach Resort says over the last 10 to 20 years the ocean has washed away about 10 feet of sand. (KATU Photo)

Nearly a quarter of Tillamook County’s population lives within a half mile from the Pacific Ocean, with 40 percent of the coastline eroding at rates of more than three feet a year.

Coastal hazards are growing, according to a recent study published by Oregon State University researchers.

Researchers say beach erosion can be attributed to three main drivers: sea level rise, increases in wave heights from winter storms and the frequency of El Nino weather patterns.

The study examined how beach access and property are impacted by these drivers. Researchers designed five different policy scenarios to address what people in Tillamook County consider priorities.

  • Status Quo:
    Continuation of present day policies.

  • Hold the Line:
    Policies are implemented that involve resisting environmental change in order to preserve existing infrastructure and human activities.
  • ReAlign:
    Policies are implemented that involve shifting development to suit the changing environment.

  • Laissez-Faire
    Current local and state policies are relaxed such that development trumps protection of coastal resources, public rights, recreation use, beach access and scenic views.

  • Hybrid
    Policies are implemented in accordance with the preferences established by Tillamook County stakeholders that involve shifting development to suit the changing environment.

Researchers also studied costs, impacts and implications of each approach. Different approaches solved different problems.

Researchers found that if policies in Tillamook County don’t change, more than 2,000 buildings will remain in the hazard zone, and that damages associated with coastal flooding will cost more than $150 million over the next century.

Under ReAlign and Hybrid policies, “strategic retreat," the action of intentionally moving buildings out of a dangerous area, is an option. The study estimates that about 1,800 buildings could be relocated and would preserve the most beach access. However, researchers found it comes with a hefty price tag, upward of $300 million.

The “laissez-faire” approach, would lift restrictions limiting where riprap is allowed to be placed. Researchers found that very few structures would be impacted by erosion, but it severely limits beach access, interferes with sand production and increases flooding hazards and risks.

The study is not designed to recommend solutions, rather it serves as a model for municipalities to rethink coastal planning and development.

At Rockaway Beach Resort, manager Jeff Hunter measures erosion rates by looking at the resort's staircase.

"Based on how many stairs are exposed at the bottom of the stairs," Hunter said, "is how I know how much sand we've lost."

Over the past 10 to 20 years, Hunter estimates the ocean has washed away about 10 feet of sand.

In 2008, the resort installed riprap to prevent erosion. It wasn't cheap either.

"Based on what I’ve seen, I think the beach is going to get lower as the ocean gets higher," Hunter told KATU. "The only thing we can do is keep building deeper riprap and keep building longer stairs. We can’t do anything to stop erosion, all we can do is react to it."

Tillamook County Emergency Management Director Gordon McCraw says erosion is an everyday concern.

"We got a lot of beach in Tillamook County," McCraw said. "Coastal erosion has and [will] be a concern, considering a large population is right on the beach."

McCraw says the county holds meetings and forums to inform its residents on the issue.

He says the county and citizens have successfully formed work groups to seek solutions.

Researchers say no single approach is perfect, but the report is certainly a helpful resource.

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