If you don't live in a low-lying beach town in California or know anyone who does, you'd be forgiven for never having heard the term "managed retreat." But it's a hot topic in places like Pacifica and Stinson Beach, where planning for sea-level rise means some very tough conversations for property owners whose homes might someday soon be underwater.

This week's episode of This American Life, titled "Apocalypse Creep," is particularly California-focused, first talking about the surreal-ness of being an on-air radio host in Truckee last summer, amid the gloom of so much wildfire smoke.

The main act of the show focuses on Pacifica, and a recent battle there over whether to cooperate with the Coastal Commission in creating options for sea-level-rise planning. The story starts with a Pacifica homeowner whose entire backyard fell into the ocean during the El Nino winter of 1997/98. Two weeks after having the neighborhood over for a "raucous El Nino party," with everyone wearing floatation devices as a joke, homeowner Jane wakes up one morning to the stark reality of living on the bluffs of Pacifica — and the slow-moving apocalypse of a particularly active ocean that February meant that her house would be deemed uninhabitable, along with every other house on her side of the street.

Another El Nino year in 2016 would put three oceanfront apartment buildings in peril, and a drone videographer at the time captured the cliff erosion happening in real time, as the waves crashed up against them.

That same videographer returned to Pacifica last year to show what the same cliff looks like now — the buildings are now gone, and there's just flat space where their foundations still sit, with much of the cliff still intact, and the street that the buildings used to face, Esplanade Avenue, still there and functional with houses on the other side.

Last April, SFist touched on the tensions over county- and city-level planning that has been underway for a few years, at the behest of the powerful California Coastal Commission. Up in Stinson Beach, there are dozens of homes that could face inundation from ocean water in the next few decades, and some in the community have been tussling with Marin County officials about how to address this — discussing the building of seawalls, for instance, and the raising up of homes.

Managed retreat has come up as an option, which would involve, in some cases, paying homeowners to abandon their homes and move, or paying to physically move houses. And a cost-benefit analysis of various options has not yet been done.

The Coastal Commission reached out after that report — which SFist was partly repeating from an Earth Day piece on KPIX — saying that no one at KPIX had spoken with them, and there was some inaccuracies in the report. This is reflective of how sensitive the topic has become, and the commission said, "We do not believe and would never say the entire community of Stinson or Highway 1 should be abandoned to the ocean. Reasonable people disagree on how to deal with sea level rise and the question for California is really about what solutions are best for the public, access to beaches and the state’s $40 billion coastal economy that depends on a narrow band of shoreline, while also addressing private development and infrastructure in a way that is equitable and consistent with the law."

Pacifica and lots of other coastal towns are facing pressure from state to consider managed retreat as one of multiple options as they plan for the future — but as This American Life surmises planning for an uncertain future that is an uncertain number of years away isn't something that sits well with people who don't want their property to suddenly be worth nothing — or significantly less than they paid for it.

The show visits an open house at a home that was being sold at a pretty deep discount — it was apparently listed at around $700,000 for an oceanfront view — but where part of the house sits just 10 feet from a cliff that drops off into the ocean, and which may erode further in a big storm or another El Nino. The back part of the house had, in fact, fallen into the ocean a few years ago, and the homeowners just patched things up and were selling the house as-is, minus that part. One potential buyer suggests maybe it was a good buy, since it would likely last as long he was alive anyway.

And they talk to the former mayor of Pacifica, John Keener, who was voted out in 2018 specifically because he wasn't saying what the residents wanted to hear when it came to managed retreat. Keener was trying to take a balanced approach as the city began the process of crafting a sea-level plan, but no one wanted to hear that. His opponents did things like send out mailers showing Keener's head Photoshopped onto a body that burning up a pile of cash on a barbecue, for instance, and saying he "wanted" to see Pacifica fall into the ocean.

Also, a realtor brings up a valid point, which is that there likely isn't enough cash in the state's coffers to make all homeowners "whole" in all the coastal communities facing the possibility of managed retreat — in other words, people are probably going to get screwed if they agree to take some buyout or consent to having their home red-tagged.

So where do we go from here? Pacifica approved a plan and submitted it to the state wherein they reject managed retreat, and they took out all references to any neighborhoods being in "hazard" zones for sea-level rise. One person who was part of that process says that "hazard" implies a "doom and gloom" that no one was will to accept.

"The present owns our heart," observes reporter Elise Spiegel. "The future, if it exists for us at all, lives only in our head."

It's often been a criticism lobbed at liberals that they're all doom and gloom, that in facing climate change and economic inequalities head on, they're threatening the joy and peace of the blissfully ignorant — or the blissfully able-to-ignore. That's probably true, but those same liberals would also probably think twice about buying property too close to the ocean — though people of all stripes make mistakes in real estate, led by their hearts and not their heads. And these liberals would at least, probably, be willing to spend tax dollars to reimburse people who chose blissful ignorance when they bought their houses a bit too close to the unforgiving sea.

Top image: Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia