The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1985, Volume 31, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Sea Cliffs, Beaches, and Coastal Valleys of San Diego County. Some Amazing Histories and Some Horrifying Implications. By Gerald G. Kuhn and Francis P. Shepard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Glossary. Index. 193 Pages. $22.50.

Reviewed by Philip R. Pryde, Professor of Geography at San Diego State University, past chairman of the San Diego County Planning Commission, and editor and partial author of San Diego: An Introduction to the Region (Second Edition, 1984).

The ongoing and inevitable destruction of San Diego’s coastline is one of those critically important subjects that historically seems to have been almost ignored. At last this subject is tackled with dedication and persuasion by Kuhn and Shepard in Sea Cliffs, Beaches, and Coastal Valleys of San Diego County.

Persons unfamiliar with southern California’s geomorphology appear to believe that our coastline is a fairly permanent feature of the landscape. In fact, it is not. Continuous, though unpredictable, erosion is its natural condition.

Using the eloquent medium of photography, Kuhn and Shepard document the irrepressible regression of the San Diego County coastline. Many of their photos are paired, comparing present conditions with how the same coastal area looked in the past. Especially graphic are the pictures of the destruction of the Strand at Oceanside (p. 58), the map showing the loss of entire city blocks in Encinitas (p. 35), and the account of the Great Flood of 1862 (p. 32.).

Even if one does no more than glance through the book at the illustrations, the authors’ message is clear: treat the coastline with understanding and deference, or be prepared to suffer the consequences. Nature is at home along the county’s coast, and it makes up its own rules of the game. The book’s photographs document the sad and expensive extent to which we have not understood these rules, and the price we have subsequently paid.

Although the photos alone are worth the price of the book, those who study the text will learn of the processes which have formed, and removed, our coastal landforms. Foremost among these are the periodic severe winter storms, most recently witnessed in February 1980 and January 1983, which may produce more coastal changes in a few days than the calmer intervening periods do over a large number of years.

This is a book that on the whole is to be highly praised. A technical question could be raised regarding occasional possible non-sequiturs or implied casual relationships that are unconvincingly documented, most of which seem to stem from the authors’ enthusiasm for volcanic explanations. Also, a more restrained promotional effort, as in the sub-title and the opening sentence of the conclusion, might have been employed. Given the serious nature of the study and the wording of the sub-title, in fact, the conclusion section seems rather brief (less than three full pages), and unfortunately offers little in the way of recommendations as to what steps coastal planners might take (adequate setbacks, etc.) to prevent economic losses in the future. These points, however, do not detract from the overall value of the book in graphically depicting what all too many of us suspect, but don’t really want to admit,-that our coastline is highly ephemeral.

The book will be of great interest to all who use our coastal areas, and to all who want to better understand the natural history of our region. It should be mandatory reading for all who live, work, build, plan, or buy in the coastal zone. From now on, there will be no excuse for saying, “Gee, I had no idea . . .”.