On June 3, Election Day, Steve Aceti’s cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Calls came flooding in about Proposition G, a measure to help fund sand replenishment on Encinitas beaches by charging an extra 2 percent tax on short-term rental properties. Callers wanted to know why they hadn’t been informed about Prop G ahead of time and why there hadn’t been a campaign for the measure, which lost that day. Aceti told them he was just as surprised to see the proposition on the ballot as they were.
The reason Aceti was so surprised is that getting sand for San Diego’s beaches is what he does for a living. Aceti is the executive director of California Coastal Coalition, a nonprofit whose members include 35 California coastal cities, 5 county agencies, and various businesses. The coalition represents its members through lobbying the state and federal governments for money for beach restoration, wetlands restoration, and water quality improvement. Aceti also serves on the Shoreline Preservation Working Group for the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency.
Since 1993, local coastal communities, along with the state and federal governments, have thrown millions of dollars into putting sand on the county’s coastline.
Yet San Diego’s beaches still have a massive sand deficit. According to a San Diego Association of Governments report, 400,000 cubic yards of sand are lost from the county’s beaches — 300,000 in North County alone — on an annual basis. Over the years, the sand deficit has grown to an estimated 30 million cubic yards.
The reasons for the deficit are many, among them coastal development, the damming of rivers, sand-mining operations, seawalls, jetty construction, and harbor dredging.
Rob Rundle, principal planner for San Diego Association of Governments, says that development along San Diego’s coastland and the damming of rivers has prevented the natural influx of sand to the county’s beaches. “So, if you don’t do some kind of active management of the shoreline, then there will be significant [sand] erosion. In order to have a beach, something needs to be done.”
Something was done in April 2001, when the San Diego Association of Governments started on the largest sand-replenishment project in state history. The $17.5 million Regional Beach Sand Project consisted of dredging up 2.1 million cubic yards of sand from 6 offshore sites and pumping it onto 12 San Diego County beaches.
In the seven years since, all the sand has washed away, leaving sand levels below what they were before 2001.
And yet the San Diego Association of Governments is planning another massive sand-replenishment undertaking, hoping to start by 2010. Rundle says the quantity of sand the new plan will furnish to beaches is comparable to the amount furnished in the 2001 project, and the plan also includes placing artificial reefs off the coast of the beaches that are most susceptible to erosion, namely those in Solana Beach and Encinitas. The reefs are designed to absorb the impact of large ocean swells and act as a barrier to trap outflowing sand. They will not eliminate beach erosion altogether but will slow down the process.
The project’s estimated cost is over $25 million, most of which the regional planning agency has already secured, with help from Aceti. “There’s money in the state budget for the 2010 project,” says Aceti. “We went to Sacramento this fall and told them that the 2001 project was successful. There’s about $21 million in the state budget for the 2010 project. All we have to find is another $4 million in different prop funds.”
Coastal cities, from Oceanside to Imperial Beach, have already paid for the preliminary feasibility studies. So far, the City of San Diego has spent $199,000, while costs have been lower for smaller cities, such as Solana Beach, which has spent $17,500.
The Army Corps of Engineers also has ongoing beach-nourishment projects in the county. The City of Imperial Beach has paid over $200,000 for a project to widen its beach. According to Joe Johnson of the Army Corps of Engineers, the corps is working on a report for a future project in Encinitas and Solana Beach that has cost the two cities $2.5 million for the report alone.
But while Aceti and the San Diego Association of Governments continue to hunt down funds, many environmental groups question the wisdom of spending millions of dollars to put sand on the beach just to see it disappear in a matter of years, if not months.
Mark Massara, director of the California Coastal Program for the Sierra Club, considers large-scale sand-replenishment projects a big waste of time and taxpayer money, as effective as “spitting into the wind.”
“Beach nourishment can sometimes play a role in restoring and protecting coastal habitats, but it’s only one part of a much larger program,” says Massara. “In San Diego County, a very large percentage of sand comes from the erosion of bluffs. If they line the bluffs with seawalls, the natural result is going to be sandless beaches. So if you’re not removing seawalls, moving development back, protecting rivers and streams from dams and fortifications, then beach nourishment alone is expensive, temporary, and just flat-out won’t work.”
Serge Dedina is executive director of Wildcoast, a coastal environmental conservation group based in Imperial Beach. Dedina says that sand lobbyists like Aceti are concerned for the wrong reasons.
“Sand replenishment is public welfare for multimillionaire beachfront property owners,” Dedina says. “The majority of the benefit goes toward private-property protection. Beach replenishment or dredge-and-fill projects have little impact on preserving shorelines in the long term due to the damming up of rivers and the dramatic physical alteration of our coastline. San Diego County has a number of issues that need to be addressed immediately, and spending tens of millions of dollars on beach sand that benefits private-property owners is not one of them.”
Aceti says he doesn’t think twice about the homes; it’s the beach that he’s concerned with.
Dr. Robert Guza, an expert on surf-zone currents at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says that beaches are a valuable economic asset, attracting tourists who spend billions of dollars a year in U.S. coastal communities. “Studies suggest that the economic value of California coastal tourism exceeds the value of all ports in California combined,” he says. But, Guza says in an email, scientists are just starting to study sand projects in California. “Sand replenishments are engineering projects with all the associated successes and failures. The longevity of sand nourishments is highly variable. The broad beach fronting the Hotel del Coronado is believed to result from sand placed on Silver Strand during dredging of San Diego Bay decades ago. Currents swept the sand northward, where it still sits because the shape of the coastline forms a natural retention structure. On the other hand, some nourishment projects appear to have vanished with the first storm.
“Most engineering projects require maintenance,” Guza explains. “This does not mean they are ‘failures.’ Maintenance is part of the program cost: four to seven years is a typical repeat time to maintain a broad beach, depending on the site and Ma Nature’s behavior.
“The number of seawalls protecting public and private property will inevitably grow over the next decades for obvious reasons, including sea-level rise,” continues Guza. “About 35 percent of north San Diego County beaches already have seawalls, and the only way to mitigate the negative impacts of seawalls, namely passive erosion on a retreating shoreline, is sand nourishment.”
So Aceti will continue to lobby for funds, including the 2 percent vacation-rental tax in Encinitas. “I think they [the City of Encinitas] thought it would be a no-brainer,” Aceti says. “Especially since the money would come from other people’s money.”
Encinitas mayor Jerome Stocks agrees that Proposition G was not adequately campaigned, but not because he considered it a slam dunk. “The City of Encinitas is very careful not to use taxpayer resources for political purposes,” he says. “The City placed the question before the voters. Perhaps we could have done more in the way of an educational campaign, but that can become a slippery slope.”
Two weeks after the election results were posted, Aceti went to work. He lobbied the city council and Mayor Stocks to put the measure on November’s ballot, despite the $12,500 expense. Promising to run a real campaign, Aceti told the council that sand on the beaches was vital to Encinitas, not only for tourism but for quality of life.
Mayor Stocks agrees. “The issue will be decided by the voters, but I believe that our beaches are an important component of our local quality of life, our local economy, and that having sand on our beaches is the most effective form of ‘soft armoring,’ which helps reduce the need and demand for seawalls.”
The city council voted 3 to 2, agreeing with Aceti to give the proposition another shot. So far, it has cost the City of Encinitas $25,000, without yielding a single grain of sand.