The good news is that the two-thirds of the Peninsula north of Cranberry Road face little immediate threat from coastal erosion.

In fact, there is even much to be happy about when it comes to the vanishing beach in the endangered southern six miles from North Head to Cranberry. Long-established residential areas in Seaview and Long Beach are probably safe for the foreseeable future.

A startling Oregon State University study described in the Observer last week is certain to cause concern. And so it should. But neither the OSU study nor an earlier exhaustive five-year analysis of local erosion led by the U.S. Geological Survey suggest that our beach will retreat east into the cherished homes built a century ago along what was then the waterfront.

It also is good news that much of the land which may be reclaimed by the ocean is now unoccupied. There is the potential for significant financial loss, but it could have been far worse.

The bad news, however, is very bad. If some of the Pacific Northwest's leading erosion researchers are correct, dream homes will be lost. Beach-front hotels and condos will be lost. The Discovery Trail will be lost. The Long Beach Boardwalk will be lost. Much of the beloved Seaview dunes will be eaten away in the next 20 years.

When south Peninsula beaches rapidly grew outward in the decades following construction of jetties at the mouth of the Columbia, people incorrectly attributed it to our beach being shielded from the ocean's ravages. But to over-simplify a complex process, what was actually happening was the gradual relocation and depletion of a huge sandbar named Peacock Spit. It was swept north over a period of decades, its sands deposited in front of Seaview and Long Beach. Now it is gone, or nearly so, and nothing is replacing it.

Just as death and taxes are inescapable, so it is true that what the ocean gives, it will someday take. That someday has arrived, as a visit to Seaview beach quickly demonstrates. Already, erosion has eaten a good deal of the primary, westward dune.

The building that has taken place thus far on newly created land is understandable, given the character of U.S. property rights and the normal inclinations of local elected officials in favor of development. All things considered, partly thanks to devoted conservationists, we've done relatively well at resisting the sirens' call to profit from developing shifting sand dunes.

What would not be understandable, or forgivable, is permitting additional development to occur in the threatened zone. Though it is conceivable that changes in how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers disposes of Columbia sediments might slow the expected erosion, the nation's current financial situation does not lend itself to bailing out cute little beach towns.

If local planning commissions and their staffs are responsible and competent, they will put the brakes on additional westward development on the south end of the Peninsula. Ten years from now, if this threat doesn't fully materialize, they can reassess the situation. By the same token, owners of threatened land shouldn't be charged premium property tax rates on seashore land that is expected to disappear. Lenders and insurers also must look long and hard at this situation.

People have a difficult time imagining that what is dry land today will be breaking surf a few years from now. But the new land on the Peninsula has existed for a fraction of a heartbeat in terms of geological time. It is ephemeral, not to be trusted or built upon. We are smart enough, all of us, to see this and act accordingly.

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