Bluff-top homeowners breathe easier

Encinitas council approves sand-replenishment project

“Beach replenishment is futile," says retired marine biologist Dennis Lees. (Beacon's Beach)
  • “Beach replenishment is futile," says retired marine biologist Dennis Lees. (Beacon's Beach)
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The Encinitas City Council voted unanimously Wednesday night (October 14) to approve a plan to try and control coastline damage from storms. The Army Corps of Engineers project would reduce bluff collapses by adding sand to the coastline between Beacon's Beach and Swami's.

The project, which has been in the works for 14 years, involves placing 320,000 cubic yards of sand in that area every 5 years for 50 years, according to city planners.

"Sand moves," said Matt Valario, of Dudek Environmental Consulting Services. "Sand never stays where you put it. Around here, sand tends to move southerly."

The coming El Niño winter and the long-term threat of sea-level rise compound the risks of bluff failure — one area fell just last week — and the thinning of the beaches south of Beacon's, he explained. The goal is to put enough sand on the beach to soften the impact of tides and waves against the beach and bluffs.

Homeowners have found it increasingly difficult to get permission to shore up the bluffs with seawalls, as the California Coastal Commission increasingly frowns on the practice.

"Our seawall fell down and it was a full two years before we could get permission to get it fixed," Marian Frick said. "People come along and hang their towels on the broken parts and sit there and I wanted to yell: ‘You're in danger!’”

Frick said she was home on the bluff when the seawall collapsed and it was so quiet that she didn't learn of the collapse until fire and rescue personnel came to her door and told her.

"I had seen people sitting right there and all I could think was, Are they under the wall? Are they under all that debris and wood?” Frick said.

Though homeowners endorse the sand “nourishment” project, retired marine biologist Dennis Lees said there are problems with the proposal.

Studies conclude that “Beach replenishment is futile," he said. "Beach replenishment is the opposite of how the situation should be addressed." His greatest concern has to do with the 20-foot deep basins on the ocean and lagoon floors created by taking sand — toxic dead zones are created from the sand removal, he testified. "The bottoms become anaerobic," Lees said. "Pismo clams and lobsters disappeared after the last SANDAG project."

Lees also pointed out that the Army Corps did not consider what's called “managed retreat,” or strategic retreat, among the six options it studied — including doing nothing. Managed retreat recognizes that the ocean takes what it wants; the strategy’s focus is on making whole those whose investments are no longer sustainable and to plan for what will inevitably be lost.

Surfrider went along with the project, though members had two big concerns. The first is that the sand will change the surf, particularly at the Tabletops reef break.

"We've been supportive of this beach-nourishment project, but we do want people to start thinking about the idea that it is not sustainable," said Tom Cook, who is a beach-preservation program coordinator. "As a tool for coast management, it's far superior to a seawall but you can only win for a short time."

Cook said that the project is really about protecting the million-dollar, bluff-top oceanfront homes.

"There's that stretch of the 101 [between Cardiff and Seaside state beaches] that isn't really going to be protected. It's all private homes that the project aims to protect," he said.

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