It’s not even Memorial Day and people are arguing over sand on the beach. But this isn’t just any sand. The argument is over new sand, or what its supporters prefer to call “beach renourishment.” Sounds like something ordered up at Whole Foods — so nourishing. So natural. And according to a variety of plans, so much.
In fact, if Imperial Beach officials have their way, the local beach will be the recipient in coming years of roughly 2 million cubic yards of additional sand. That would be enough to fill the Rose Bowl — more than five times over. And this mountain of new sand would be dumped on just 1.3 miles of Imperial Beach’s shoreline.
One concern is that some of the new sand would come from dredging the ocean bottom about one mile west of the mouth of the Tijuana River, whose pollution is notorious and responsible for frequent beach closings in Imperial Beach. Nonetheless, the sand has been determined to be clean and of appropriate consistency for placement on the city’s beach, according to Greg Wade, community development director for Imperial Beach.
Most of the sand won’t come cheap. The Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to dredge sand off the coast, move it to the shore, and spread it along the beach would cost nearly $60 million over 50 years. A separate San Diego Association of Governments’ project would cost $22 million for sand replenishment along county beaches. A third project, also conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, in which sand dredged from San Diego Harbor would be deposited off the shoreline of Imperial Beach, would be free to the city.
The prospects for the $60 million project suffered a setback last week. The federal Office of Management and Budget failed to include any beach-replenishment projects among the programs to be funded with federal stimulus money. The political tussle now shifts to Congress, which can still insert funding for the project in an upcoming energy and water appropriations bill. Representative Susan Davis, a Democrat whose district includes Imperial Beach, has requested $3 million for the project. The city has secured some $6 million from the Port of San Diego and the state toward the first $14 million phase. The city has spent about $450,000 since 2001 lobbying for sand projects and for engineering studies.
To supporters of sand replenishment, it is a sensible way to preserve the eroding coastline, which is key to the beach town’s identity and its economy.
“We have two million visitors a year coming to Imperial Beach,” said Wade, the city’s community development director. “Our population is just over 27,000. So not only do people from the region come, people come from all over. It’s an international resource. I would go so far as to say that the economic benefits of a sandy beach far exceed the costs.”
But Serge Dedina, lifelong surfer, environmentalist, and executive director of Wildcoast, an Imperial Beach–based group, says that’s going way too far. Dedina says the sand-dumping programs amount to “bailing out multimillionaire beachfront homeowners” who worry that continued coastline erosion jeopardizes their properties.
“These big projects do not make sense,” said Dedina. He says that Imperial Beach, still largely a working-class town, should have different priorities.
“Imperial Beach doesn’t have a sand problem,” said Dedina, pointing to the beach on a sunny, warm weekday afternoon. “What we have is a water-quality problem.”
To say the least. Pollution from Tijuana has closed Imperial Beach’s best surf breaks— Tijuana Sloughs and Boca Rio, at the southern end of the city — about 1600 days over the last decade, according to Wildcoast.
Mark Massara is director of coastal programs for the Sierra Club. “Generally, these programs are a bunch of engineers seeking millions of dollars of taxpayer money to throw in front of the seawalls of millionaires,” said Massara. He argues — and no one disagrees on either side of this issue — that overdevelopment of coastlines and damming of rivers has severely diminished natural sand replenishment. But Massara says that developers want the public to pay to reverse the damage they’ve done.
Sand replenishment is acceptable, Massara said, only when it’s part of a coordinated campaign to reverse environmentally damaging coastal development, such as a halt to the construction of seawalls, which contribute to beach erosion. Massara and Dedina insist that replenishment without taking these other measures is an expensive short-term solution. For example, Massara said, a countywide sand dump in 2001 was largely washed away within months.
But supporters of beach replenishment argue that there’s little choice in the short term except to renourish beaches or see them erode. Supporters say further that their studies prove dumped sand can stay on beaches for at least several years.
Shelby Tucker, an associate regional planner with the San Diego Association of Governments, said studies of its 2001 sand-replenishment program — which dumped about 2 million cubic yards of sand along county beaches — provide evidence that most beaches retained some of the dumped sand more than seven years later.
“We expected the sand to stay on the beach for five years or so,” said Tucker. While some of the sand was swept off the beaches, she said it stayed within the regional ocean ecosystem and returned to shorelines in recent years. The evidence for this is obvious on many beaches, she said, because of color differences between dumped sand and natural sand.
Rob Rundle, principal regional planner at San Diego Association of Governments, noted that cities don’t have to participate in Sandag’s sand program. Though most coastal cities have opted to take part, Del Mar and San Diego have chosen not to, primarily to save money. The program would have cost those cities about $220,000 and $1.2 million, respectively.
Marco Gonzalez, an attorney and member of the Surfrider Foundation’s local advisory board, said a key issue is how the sand replenishment is done.
“I would agree philosophically that you can’t simply address the symptoms of the problem [of beach erosion],” said Gonzalez. And he also agrees that many Corps of Engineers sand-dumping programs — particularly on the East Coast — have been badly done; there have been stories about live munitions dumped along with sand on some beaches.
But Gonzalez said the San Diego Association of Governments’ 2001 program was well done and well monitored. A good example of the program’s success is George’s Beach in Cardiff, not far from the Chart House Restaurant.
“Through the 1970s and 1980s, that was a good surf beach with a lot of recreation,” said Gonzalez. “By the end of the 1990s, it was denuded, with all cobble[stones]. There was so little protection of Highway 101 that the City of Encinitas proposed a 500- to 600-foot seawall. Sandag replenished the heck out of that beach, and we enjoyed a few years of stability and the waves. It lasted four to five years, and that beach is still better than it was in 1997.”
The bottom line, said Gonzalez, is that seven years after the first big countywide sand replenishment, “I see hundreds of thousands of people benefiting from that beach-sand project.”
Rather than seeing the projects as benefiting wealthy coastal property owners, Gonzalez said he sees beach replenishment as protecting public access to the ocean. At the same time, he agreed on the need to press for restrictions on coastal development, which has blocked natural-sand deposition.
Others within Surfrider, however, think Sandag’s approach has been misguided.
“I’m opposed to them relying on sand replenishment as the only tool to deal with beach erosion,” said Jim Jaffee, who is also a member of Surfrider’s local advisory board. “The problem is that we have a retreating coast and they’ve allowed people to build too close to the coastline in the past. We have not addressed that past problem. With rising sea levels [from global warming], we will have even more erosion. And I don’t necessarily believe the projects they’ve done have been a big success.”
There are so-called opportunistic sand programs that few oppose. Developers of Pacific Station in downtown Encinitas, for example, recently provided 37,000 cubic yards of sand from their project that went for beach restoration. Dedina and other opponents of large-scale projects have no trouble in principle with this type of program, though Jaffee said there was debris mixed into the sand from Pacific Station.
But there is broader opposition to big projects pressed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Opponents say these projects are strongly advocated for by a powerful lobby of affluent coastal property owners.
Steve Aceti, a lobbyist for beach restoration, says opponents of the projects overlook the environmental benefits of putting sand back on denuded beaches.
“When we restore a beach habitat, we see snowy plovers and least terns come back, along with grunion,” said Aceti. “An incidental benefit goes to the private homeowners [along the coast], and that’s what has beach-restoration opponents up in arms.”
Aceti insisted that when he lobbies for beach restoration, he looks “at the ecosystem and recreational benefits. I am not looking at the homeowners.” And with the county losing an estimated 35 million cubic yards of sand annually, Aceti said, “You have to recharge the system or watch it wash away.”
Dedina said the big projects pressed by Aceti and others have caused environmental damage. He’s particularly critical of the Corp of Engineers’ project in 2004, which Dedina says dumped questionable sand off Imperial Beach that included rebar and caused odors, leading surfers to name the site “Toxics.”
The Army Corps of Engineers’ $60 million project, he said, would pull sand from an area that is too close to the sewer outfall pipe from the International Wastewater Treatment Plant and that may contain munitions fired from the Army’s World War I–era Ream Field gunnery range.
“This is ten times bigger than other projects,” Dedina said. “It would destroy fishing and surfing.”
Dedina is also miffed about what he characterized as Imperial Beach’s failure to fully involve the community in planning. Wade, the city’s community development director, said there have been multiple opportunities for citizen involvement.
Wade agreed that the 2004 dump was done badly by the Army Corps of Engineers. For the smaller harbor-dredging project that could begin later this year, the development director said the corps will use equipment that will partly filter the material before it is deposited off the beach.