“They don’t know what they’re doing, but they go ahead and do it anyway,” says William Kellogg, referring to the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Coastal Commission, and the City of Imperial Beach. The Corps opened the bidding last week for the construction of a mile-long breakwater off Imperial Beach, and if Kellogg’s latest legal challenge to the project is not upheld in court this week, construction of the $5.6 million structure is due to begin within a month.
Kellogg, who is a geologist, geophysicist, general manager of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, and managing trustee of the Kellogg Trust, is convinced that the breakwater will be a disaster for the entire length of the Silver Strand. “I’m in a position, from a technical background, to understand it, and I’m in a position to do something about it,” he says, explaining why the Kellogg Trust has used its considerable resources to oppose the breakwater. “We’re performing a public service, and we’ll continue it. You must serve. If you don’t you’re negligent.”
When the California Coastal Commission first issued a permit for the breakwater in July of 1981, Kellogg filed a lawsuit and succeeded in getting the permit invalidated. The project was reconsidered during this past summer, and again the Coastal Commission issued a permit. Again, Kellogg filed suit to stop the project.
Aside from the ample depth of his pocket, Kellogg also has behind him the impressive credibility of the Center for Coastal Studies at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Douglas Inman, the center’s director, has gone on record before the Coastal Commission and in court as being opposed to the project. Inman has studied the Silver Strand beach for years and is the recognized expert on local erosion problems. He says the prevailing currents in the area move from south to north (though for a short period during the year they go in a southerly direction), and these currents are continually carrying sand away from the county’s southern beaches and depositing it along the Zuniga jetty, which protects the entrance of San Diego Bay from silting up with the sand. This eleven-mile long “Silver Strand Littoral Cell” is what created the Silver Strand, using sand brought down to the ocean by the Tijuana River; but damming of the river and its tributaries (for the Morena and Barrett reservoirs in the U.S. and the Rodriguez Reservoir in Mexico) has shut off that sand supply, and the currents now take their sand from the beaches.
In a letter to the Coastal Commission, Inman wrote, “There is concern that once the detached breakwater is installed at Imperial Beach, the entire coastline of Silver Strand, including the Silver Strand State Park and Coronado, becomes locked into a structural solution to beach maintenance. The breakwater is virtually impossible to remove and its presence may begin the chain reaction requiring other structural solutions. Also, since the structure will prevent the free up-and-down-coast movement of littoral sand that now occurs, the southerly transport of sand will also be impeded. This will increase erosion of the sand spit protecting the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge and Estuarine Sanctuary.”
The breakwater was first proposed in the mid-1970s as a way to prevent the loss of the beaches at Imperial Beach. The Corps of Engineers predicted the eventual disappearance of most of the sand and built two rock jetties to try and save the beach, which had been eroding since the turn of the century. These failed, and the submerged breakwater was eventually selected from nineteen different improvement plans. Such a structure has never been built on the West Coast and is considered experimental. It will be 5000 feet long, will run parallel to the shore, and will extend about equal distances on both sides of the Imperial Beach pier. It will consist of nearly 190,000 boulders, stacked in a line at a depth of approximately twelve feet. Some sections of the breakwater will rise ten feet off the bottom, other sections will rise seven feet. At either end it will connect to jetties extending 800 feet out from shore – from the existing jetty a half-mile north of the pier, to one that will be constructed to the south – forming a kind of protected box in which wave action will almost be eliminated. Popular surfing areas along both sides of the pier will disappear, prompting the nonprofit Malibu Surfrider Foundation’s recently filed lawsuit to halt the breakwater. But the main problem with it, according to Scripps scientists, is that the structure does not replace sand that is being continually lost to erosion. It merely traps sand and, they predict, will actually cause more severe beach erosion in adjacent areas.
“You can find an expert to say just about anything,” says Imperial Beach Mayor William Russell. His city’s own experts say that erosion will only be increased for 5000 feet north of the breakwater. When asked about Inman’s prediction of extensive erosion both to the north and the south, Russell replies, “I don’t believe that. Our beaches are eroding because the Tijuana River was dammed up and no new sand is being washed into the sea. So I don’t believe there’s a significant amount of sand flowing to the north anyway.” And yet, according to Russell, the beach is disappearing. “By 2009, the beach will be down to cobbles. Of the one million cubic yards of sand placed on the beach in 1977, two-thirds is gone already. We face the imminent loss of our beach.”
William Kellogg calls this hooey. “We got a one-hundred year storm in 1982 and ’83, and all that sand that was washed out has come back,” he says. “Sand levels rise and fall over time. Look at their beach now, it’s got as much sand as ever. There is no urgency. So let’s try the least harmful approach: sand replenishment.”
The Coastal Commission staff report, which provides the legal basis for issuing the permit, stated that sand replenishment (dumping sand directly onto the beach) was a preferable approach, with fewer environmental effects, less risk, and potentially greater benefits. “They acknowledge that sand replenishment is the preferred method,” says Kellogg, “but in an absolute bureaucratic inversion of logic they claim it isn’t a feasible alternative! They say the costs are about the same, so why isn’t it feasible?” The staff report says the institutional arrangements that would have to be made with the navy, the City of Coronado, and the State of California make sand replenishment infeasible. At the same time, the Coastal Commission is requiring, as a condition for the permit, that sand lost to erosion outside the breakwater must be replaced – by sand replenishment. “The Coastal Commission has abrogated its responsibility to protect the coastline of California.” At press time, Kellogg’s request for a temporary restraining order was being considered by a San Diego Superior Court judge.