2001 beach benefits short-lived 3-17-07 North County Times

By: DAVE DOWNEY – Staff Writer

NORTH COUNTY —- It was nice while it lasted. When the San Diego Association of Governments dredged up enough sand from the ocean bottom to fill Qualcomm Stadium and piped it onshore in the summer of 2001, San Diego County had some of the finest beaches around.

From Oceanside to Imperial Beach, once-narrow beaches suddenly were 25 to 100 feet wider than they were before the association spent $17.5 million and spread 2 million cubic yards of the fine material along six miles of the county’s coastline.

But it didn’t last. Winter arrived and storm swells battered the coast. And the manufactured beaches were swept back out to sea.

Within a year, most had thinned by 20 feet to 60 feet, according to a report by Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. Most shrank more the following year.

“We’re back to pre-project conditions, which aren’t very good,” said Steve Aceti, executive director for the Encinitas-based California Coastal Coalition, an advocacy group representing coastal cities and counties. “We’re back to cobble.”

In some places, it was alarming how fast the sand disappeared.

At Torrey Pines State Beach, site of one of the largest replenishment efforts, the sand stayed put for seven months. Then, on Thanksgiving Day 2001 10-foot waves erased the revamped shoreline in hours, Griggs said.

The 2001 lesson

But all was not lost, Aceti said.

From its inception, the exercise was intended to be a demonstration project that would serve as a guide for the entire state and offer lessons on how to better compose future local projects, he said. Aceti said officials knew from the outset the sand was not going to last forever and that more would be needed at regular intervals of several years.

But Mark Massara, a San Francisco attorney and California coastal programs director for the Sierra Club, said the project demonstrated that artificial sand replenishment is an exercise in futility.

“What it showed is that these beach nourishment projects are like taking public taxpayer dollars and throwing them into the sea,” Massara said. “The lesson learned is that nourishment alone will not protect San Diego beaches longer than the first day of moderate surf.”

A small, grassroots taxpayer group has similar concerns.

“SANDAG is supposed to be building roads,” said Richard Rider, chairman of the San Diego County Tax Fighters. “But, instead of making it easier for people to get to the beach, they are throwing money into the ocean. You can’t get a more egregious example of misuse of taxpayer money than that.”

The association is San Diego County’s regional transportation and planning agency, but it also handles housing, energy and beach restoration. Its 2001 project was financed with $16 million in state and federal grants and $1.5 million from coastal cities.

County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, chairwoman of the California Coastal Coalition and a Del Mar resident, said she sharply disagrees the expense was inappropriate.

“It is an expensive proposition,” Slater-Price said. “But if you look at all the things that we spend money on —- and large amounts of money on —- I think this can be construed as a reasonable investment.”

Aceti agreed. Greater amounts have been poured into local wetlands restoration and other projects that benefit the environment, he said.

An economic engine

Massara contends that beach restoration actually harms the environment because bulldozers run up and down the beach, trampling crabs, plants and other organisms.

“It is the equivalent of destroying the beach in trying to save it,” he said.

Aceti countered that the 2001 project created new habitat and surveys have shown there are more shore birds and grunion now as a result.

Aceti also maintained that beaches are a worthy tax-funded endeavor because, in many respects, they are collectively the driving force behind California’s huge economy.

“It’s what people think of when they think of California,” Aceti said.

And scientists say North San Diego County is at a disadvantage when compared to Orange and Los Angeles counties, which are sheltered by Santa Catalina Island. North County beaches are among the state’s narrowest because they take the full brunt of winter storms.

“What we need to do is to help nature,” said Jim Bond, Encinitas mayor and co-chairman of the association’s shoreline preservation committee. “We need to replenish sand that gets lost from the beach on a regular basis, just like we sweep our streets on a regular basis.”

According to a recent study by the state Department of Boating and Waterways, two-thirds of Californians visit a beach at least once a year. Visits by residents and tourists alike pump more than $60 billion a year into California’s economy, with 10 percent of that landing in North County. That’s equal to half of the state-government budget.

The report shined the spotlight on North County in a case study, which said 8 million people visit beaches from Del Mar to Oceanside annually, or twice as many as vacation in Yosemite National Park. Encinitas’ Moonlight Beach is the area’s most popular, with annual attendance around 2.3 million.

With an already narrow shoreline, the report said there is a danger that attendance will fall by half or more if area beaches continue to wither away. And the beaches’ contribution to the economy could fall from $6.6 billion a year to $3.7 billion.

Rider doesn’t buy the argument that stretching the beaches is an economic must for the county.

“The problem is with their assumption that, if we don’t do this, people are just not going to go to the beach,” Rider said. “Well that’s just silly.” People will continue to visit, he said, whether the beach is narrow or wide.

Nothing but cobble

Frustrated with the narrow, heavily eroded beaches at places such as Solana Beach and Encinitas, officials on the association’s shoreline preservation committee in recent months have been lobbying for a second project like the one in 2001.

Recently, the association estimated the cost of such a project at $25 million. It would target the same beaches as last time: Oceanside, north Carlsbad, south Carlsbad, Batiquitos, Leucadia, Moonlight, Cardiff, Fletcher Cove, Del Mar, Torrey Pines, Mission and Imperial.

Rob Rundle, principal regional planner, said there would be a few modifications. For example, the agency would avoid using the very-fine-grained material that landed at Solana Beach —- and quickly washed away.

Aceti said the project could be tackled in 2009 or 2010, if the agency can secure needed money. Officials are setting their sights on obtaining a share of proceeds from the $5.4 billion Proposition 84 bond measure voters approved in November.

Area officials also are exploring funding options ranging from a sales-tax increase to beach parking fees to hotel taxes.

Massara, the attorney and Sierra Club coastal director, said a second project would be a mistake.

“It doesn’t get to the root of the problem,” Massara said. “And that is that our beaches are being suffocated by coast-side development —- bluff-top housing, sea walls, dams and harbors.”

A comprehensive approach

What is needed, he said, is not another replenishment project but a comprehensive approach that halts construction of sea walls, restores sediment-laden rivers to their natural state, gradually moves existing development back from the surf and leaves coastal bluffs alone.

“Bluffs do not fail,” Massara said. “Bluffs do what they are supposed to do, and that is they crumble and nourish the beach. We need bluffs to crumble if we want sandy beaches. You will never wind up at a (permanent) state of sandy beaches by buying sand.”

Aceti acknowledged a comprehensive approach is needed. But he said one cannot undo coastal development already in place and one has to start somewhere.

As for the bluffs, Aceti maintained that by themselves they do not provide nearly enough sand to fortify local beaches. That, he said, should be obvious from Torrey Pines beach, which is narrow despite being in a state park devoid artificial barriers that prevent eroding-bluff sand from reaching the beach.

Rundle said eventually the agency could stabilize the San Diego County coastline, to where it remains at a steady, robust size —- shrinking in winter and expanding again in summer. But he said that will take fortifying the coastline with up to 30 million cubic yards of sand —- 15 times the amount spread in 2001.

While officials contemplate a long-term solution, Aceti said in the meantime the region needs to do another project before conditions get worse.

“It’s kind of like painting your house,” he said. “Instead of just painting over the recent coat and doing touch-up, if you wait too long you have to start all over again.”