Rancho Palos Verdes landslide is creating new coastline. 'It's unreal'

PALOS VERDES, CA - JUNE 21, 2024 - A resident walks next to an area where land upheaval has lifted bentonite from below the ocean becoming a rocky coastline due to the ongoing landslide in the Portuguese Bend Beach Club neighborhood in Palos Verdes on June 21, 2024. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
A resident walks next to an area where the waters have given way to a rocky coast that was transformed as the force of landslides pushed a combination of mostly basalt and bentonite up from below the sand. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

There's an entirely new coastline in Rancho Palos Verdes.

The rapidly expanding and accelerating complex of landslides on the southeastern tip of the Palos Verdes peninsula continues to wreak havoc on the area's homes, roads and utilities, even forcing the iconic Wayfarers Chapel to abandon its location, at least temporarily.

But it has also led to a new and unforeseen change at the water's edge: The seafloor has been pushed upward, literally creating new beach.

“That beach is brand new," said Denny Jaconi, pointing to the rocky shoreline that he said didn't exist just a few months ago. "There's three or four of us that have been surfing down here our whole lives, and we're just blown away because it's unreal."

The waters where Jaconi caught waves in his childhood — and even just months ago — have given way to a large, rocky coast, transformed as the force of the landslides has pushed bentonite up from below the sand.

Denny Jaconi points to a rocky beach
"That beach is brand new," said Denny Jaconi, pointing to the rocky shoreline that he said didn't exist just a few months ago. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s changing like every week," he said, as new reefs appear regularly.

Jaconi, 45, is a lifelong resident of the Portuguese Bend Beach Club, a small gated community just off Palos Verdes Drive South that has the most direct access to the evolving beach. The neighborhood's large, white-sand beach has also recently bulged into a hillside; visitors coming from Seawall Road can no longer see the water until they climb up the now-mounded sand.

But the changes from the accelerating land movement don't end there, Jaconi said.

Almost every home in their neighborhood has seen significant damage, with wall cracks, jammed doors, collapsed decks and shifting foundations worsening every day. The main road has become gravel in many spots after one too many pavement fractures. The community's beachside tennis court was recently removed, its rippled floor no longer allowing for games.

For most who live there, it's their first time seeing damage from the landslide complex, which is made up of at least five separate slides, including the Portuguese Bend slide, the largest and most active. Land movement has plagued this region since a portion of the ancient landslides was reactivated in the 1950s, but officials say the recent movement — the outcome of back-to-back wet winters — is unlike anything on record.

Read more: Winter rains fuel 'unprecedented' acceleration, expansion of landslides in Rancho Palos Verdes

"Things are moving, unfortunately, faster than they ever have historically," Mike Phipps, the city's geologist, said at Tuesday night's City Council meeting. In his latest report, he noted that the landslide continues to affect new areas, moving in some spots as much as 13 inches a week. For decades, most areas saw movement closer to a few inches a year — if that.

That new and rapid movement has transformed the coastline.

"The Portuguese Beach Club area continues to experience major deformation along Seawall Road and bulging/uplift on the order of 4 to 5 feet across the beach," Phipps wrote in his latest report. "This deformation appears to continue offshore ... based on major emergence of land in the surf zone and nearshore zone at the southeasterly toe of the [Portuguese Bend landslide]."

The new shoreline is about 250 feet farther out to sea after parts of the seafloor moved an estimated 10 feet vertically, he said, a "manifestation of this bigger, deeper, longer movement of the Portuguese Bend landslide."

Although this outcome is new for the area, geologist El Hachemi Bouali called the movement "actually quite normal for a landslide."

Read more: Rancho Palos Verdes bans bikes, motorcycles from road as landslide causes it to shift and crack

"In general, a landslide complex will lose material at the top and it will gain material at the bottom," said Bouali, an assistant professor of geosciences for Nevada State University who has long studied the Portuguese Bend landslide complex. "If enough material accumulates at the bottom and it is not removed through erosion, there may be bulging or uplift that occurs as materials accumulate and create upward deformation."

Jaconi said it's been unreal to watch these geological forces play out in real time, on an area that he thought he knew so well.

"To be showing our kids this whole new coastline ... it's a completely different place," he said.

But the coastal changes have also been a bright spot for Jaconi amid the mounting disaster that has broken countless water and gas lines, red-tagged at least two homes in the area and forced his family to pursue dramatic repairs to try to save, and make safe, their home.

A home with crumpled roof and exterior walls.
The ongoing landslide in the Portuguese Bend neighborhood in Palos Verdes has caused considerable damage to some homes. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

He said the new beach has made the water clearer, now that the waves hit rock instead of a dusty hillside, creating a better habitat for marine life and new swimming spots.

"This is like our solace through all this disaster," Jaconi said. "It's like, 'Oh, we've got a private beach down there and a couple of new surf spots.'"

He doesn't know whether officials will ever find a way to slow the devastating land movement. But he remains hopeful about a future for his family here, with dreams of raising his 5-month-old son on the same — well, different — coast where he grew up.

"We have new tide pools here," he said. "There's new kelp beds out there, there was a huge pelican population that just left. ... Now we've got like 50 feet of coastline — between ocean and landslide."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.