The sand berms are up in Ocean Beach. For some it signals the beginning of winter when kids can be seen boarding down the dunes. Others aren’t fans of the windswept sand build-up and wonder if the berms would be useful in the event they are truly needed.
“We love them. The kids get all excited about the sand berms, and bring their boogie boards,” Pat Groves told me as his two sons, aged 7 and 9, were enjoying berm. “A lot of times they bring their monster trucks cars to make trails going down the berm…yeah we have a ball, we look forward to the berms and look forward to them going away in the summer time.”
George Barnes, who has lived in Ocean Beach for 51-years, wonders if the berms are worth it.
“One question I have, is did the city do a study at all to find out if this is actually worth doing or do they just put it up? And can they show anywhere is the history of Ocean Beach that the homes have been damaged in any way, let alone severely damaged by waves? I don’t think they can [be damaged],” he opined. “And personally, I have put out dozens of fires over the years on the west side of the berm where people cannot be seen, they leave broken glass and hot coals. During wind events, sand is blown off the tops of the berms into the parking lots and the grassy areas, covering them with a thick layer of sand that the city has to clean up,” he said.
“I think it causes more problems than it’s worth,” one woman told me. “Especially when it’s windy and the sand is blown all over the lawn, killing it. It also provides a great hiding spot for the travelers camping illegally on the beachside.”
Sand berms are commonly used to prevent tidal surges from damaging homes and to stop seawater from flooding low-lying areas.
“I’ve seen waves rush up to about two-thirds of the way before the berm,” Barnes says. “But I’ve never seen any waves come in and wash out Saratoga Park, or wash out the houses.”
Large storms do cause flooding along Abbott Street and Santa Monica Ave, adjacent to Saratoga Park. However, it’s not caused by the waves. According to a 2011 Coastal Commission report, "during heavy rain events the western end of Saratoga Avenue has a tendency to flood due to inadequate storm drains."
Lifeguards I spoke to told me they have never seen the berm breached by a wave.
“We had at least two incidents last winter,” one of the guys told me. "When it was high tide I watched it come up here into the lot. But it actually went between the berms, not over it. When this happens we don’t let anybody on the beach side because the water will come all the way up…that’s the only time I’ve seen it come through, but no, it hasn’t breached the berm. I know the one [wave] that came up and over the seawall last year swept a woman into the street. We were dealing with our own stuff over here and didn’t realize it came up over there.”
“In the kind of event, like the hundred-year storm that would heavily damage the beach front property, the berm is worthless. It would blow right through it." Barnes adds.
A 2015 article reports that the berm in Ocean Beach "can be completely eroded by wave attack without run-up ever reaching the original (un-eroded) crest level…Currently, berms are located on or near the highest portion of the beach…Elevating the berm crest alone would likely not provide sufficient protection."
For surfers, the berms also impact the quality of the surf.
“They bulldoze the sand up from close to the water line,” Barnes tells me. “This causes the beach bank to steepen while creating a bad backwash. The bank gets really steep, and the waves, the slope of the beach, the waves will come in and rebound off impacting the quality of the surf. Also the various currents that shape the sand bars are altered.”
Dan Daneri, city of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department, explains the city's position:
“Generally the berms are placed in areas without seawalls and that need protection from high winter storm surf and tidal surges. In addition to providing storm protection the berms help retain sand behind them.”