Coastlines are where the give-and-take of land and water is a real-time display of fluid borders and ambiguous boundaries. On the Pacific coast at Del Mar, California the land and water accommodate surfers, bathers, boogie boarders, strollers, joggers, bicyclists, Amtrak trains, million-dollar homes, life-guard jeeps, stormwater runoff, crumbling bluffs, and disappearing sand. The beach is a place where the concept of property ownership is regularly challenged by the fluidity of water and land enjoined.

Amtrak Train at Del Mar Bridge

Amtrak Train at Del Mar Bridge

The coastline at Del Mar is an overlay of engineered landscape and natural dynamics. There are three planes of activity, each happening at elevations separated by from 10 to 100 feet. At sea level there is the beach, where the tide advances and recedes, periodically enlarged by Pacific storms, and very effective in stripping clean the sand dune surfaces that visitors expect to recline in. At the highest plane, atop the bluff, are single family homes and apartments, built within a lattice of transportation, sewer, water, power, gas, and drainage infrastructure. In-between, the railroad right-of-way winds among the bluffs from north to south, intersecting occasional culverts built to intercept stormwater and direct it under the tracks and onto the beach and bridges conveying people and goods overhead.

Protecting the terraced railroad right-of-way from erosion above and the crashing waves undermining the bluffs from below is a constant challenge — managing the engineered and the natural systems for as long as we’re here. Every now and then, a portion of the bluff between the railroad and the beach sloughs off and collapses onto the shore below, awakening public concerns about hikers on the cliffs and unsuspecting beach-goers below.

Abandoned rail on the beach exposed by winter tides

Abandoned rail on the beach exposed by winter tides

Few places offer such a beautiful spot to see the tension between human aspirations and the reality of nature’s most powerful forces. For a spectacular series of aerial photographs covering the entire California coastline over multiple years, checkout californiacoastline.org. And to see a slice of the coast at Del Mar, here’s a photo near 8th Street.

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