/North County Report: A Brief History of Efforts to Stabilize Beach Cliffs

North County Report: A Brief History of Efforts to Stabilize Beach Cliffs

A warning sign cautions beachgoers in Encinitas / Image via Shutterstock

Friday’s bluff collapse at Grandview Beach in Encinitas, where three people were killed, has renewed attention on efforts to stabilize cliffs in North County so that more beachgoers aren’t crushed by sandstone.

Figuring out the best way to proceed, however, is a question not just of political will, but of money.

The bluffs are routinely hit by wind and water. To help soften the impact of waves on the rock, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is engaged in a half-century beach replenishment project. They are literally trying to fight back the rising sea by dumping more sand on the shore.

But while bluff collapses are naturally occurring events, it’s also true that the bluffs have been put in a precarious position over the years by human activity that goes beyond climate change.

One of the main reasons for the failing bluffs is urban runoff, the Union-Tribune noted last year after officials launched an emergency stabilization plan in Del Mar. Residents and businesses irrigate their properties and the water seeps into the ground. Under natural conditions, reporter Joshua Emerson-Smith wrote, the area would be subjected to 12 inches annually; urban irrigation had pushed that number to more than 100 inches annually.

In 2013, then-Solana Beach City Manager David Ott also cited river dams, ocean jetties and parking lots that cover the earth where sand would normally flow and obstruct the natural resupply.

“As the waves crash in,” he told KPBS, “they take the sand out, and eventually take all the sand out.”

Sand replenishment can stabilize beaches for years, even decades, but not forever.

The San Diego Association of Governments spent $30 million on beach replenishment in 2012 but much of that sand has already been washed away, KPBS reported last month. Deciding how much money to spend and which beaches get the sand first is both a political and economic decision.

The research on this topic is limited. But a review of the scientific literature by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography concluded that more monitoring is needed to truly understand the costs and benefits of sand replenishment as the seas continue to rise, the population grows and the physical resources are strained.

In Imperial Beach, for instance, the researchers found that sand replenishment had prevented flooding by waves but wound up elevating the water table, which caused groundwater flooding. They also noted that sand replenishment had contributed to the clogging of the Tijuana River mouth.

Sand replenishment is often held up as the most reasonable short-term solution to our eroding shores. Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, the Surfrider Foundation’s coastal preservation manager, told me that it may be time to rethink that approach.

“Sand replenishment might help slow down wave action,” she said. “But at the end of the day, our sand supply has been impacted by upland development that is blocking the natural flow of sand to the beaches.”

One alternative, known as “managed retreat,” is extremely unpopular among beachfront homeowners because it could entail the moving inland of multimillion-dollar properties as well as public infrastructure. Del Mar is officially opposed to managed retreat, citing costs and more, and residents have rejected even the possibility of considering it as an option long-term.

The California Coastal Commission has asked Del Mar to reconsider its opposition in 10 years’ time, or when a number of factors are met — like when the beach reduces to a certain width or the frequency of flood damage increases to a certain degree. The president of the Del Mar Beach Preservation Coalition urged elected officials to resist these triggers and reviews, which he dubbed “a back door to managed retreat.”

On the larger level, it is hard at times to even tell whether nature or humans are responsible for bluff erosion, because, as one expert told my colleague Ry Rivard, we’ve manipulated so much of the coastline. Part of the problem is that the historical record is less than ideal: We’re not completely sure what the cliffs used to look like. (These photographs compiled by the California Coastal Records Project give at least a sense of the narrowing of beaches since the 1970s.)

In the meantime, some officials are encouraging beachgoers to steer clear of the bluffs and sit as close to the tideline as possible. Grandview Beach opened back up to the public Saturday, but with a caveat: Authorities continued to warn that the collapse was still active.

“I know the natural shade provided by the cliffs can be enticing, but it’s obviously a risk not worth taking,” Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear wrote in a newsletter. “Better to shlep an extra umbrella down the hill.”

A Quote for the Ages

Bluff stabilization work is set to begin in Del Mar in September, after the City Council signed off Monday on a project involving state and federal funds. The Del Mar Times reports that trains have been stopped for safety inspections following landslides over the past year, provoking fears of a major catastrophe.

“It’s absolutely essential to do this work so the trains don’t fall in the ocean,” said City Councilman Dwight Worden.

SANDAG has proposed moving the train tracks off the bluffs by 2050.

The Trade War Comes to North County

Blakespear announced this weekend that a bike-share program involving her city, Solana Beach and Del Mar is indefinitely suspended because of the U.S.-China trade war.

Newly imposed tariffs and a breakdown in communications between the bike-share company and its suppliers in China mean the local program won’t be starting on time this summer.

“This is a major disappointment that is directly linked to the U.S. President’s trade war,” Blakespear wrote.

The Coast News also reported that San Diego County’s dairy industry has sharply declined in recent years. One farmer blamed a double whammy of market forces: expensive state regulations and Trump’s trade war.

Carlsbad to Divest from Fossil Fuels and Sugary Drinks

In January, I wrote a short profile of Priya Bhat-Patel, the newly elected Carlsbad City Councilwoman and deputy mayor who was out to change the narrative of North County as a bastion of white conservatism. One of the first things she proposed was that Carlsbad reconsider its investment portfolio and divest from fossil fuels and other companies that didn’t align with the city’s goals and values.

Since then, the city has tweaked its investment policy so that it cannot put new taxpayer dollars into businesses that seek out, extract and process oil and gas. The last of those holdings mature in March 2022. They also agreed to dump Coca-Cola for health reasons. Those holdings mature sooner — in September 2021.

The proposal drew support from both Democrats and Republicans on the City Council, but for slightly different reasons. Democrats said they were serious about wanting to curb greenhouse gas emissions and encourage healthier residents.

Republicans, on the other hand, made clear their confidence in the city treasurer’s abilities to continue making investments in other highly rated companies. Before joining the 5-0 vote in favor of dropping Exxon and others, Mayor Matt Hall said major oil companies are “also some of the biggest producers of green energy in the country.”

Money, Money, Money!

The fundraising numbers for the first half of 2019 are in, and the crew here put together a guide to some of the major city and county races.

Republican incumbent Kristin Gaspar took in the most donations, followed by attorney Terra Lawson-Remer and Escondido City Councilwoman Olga Diaz, both Democrats. Money isn’t the end-all, of course, but it helps get in front of voters. And the D3 race is among the most important in 2020 because it’ll likely determine which party controls the county going forward.

Oh, by the way: Lawson-Remer had a baby last week. She said she might be taking a few weeks off. Might.

Sara Libby also checked the campaign finance reports for the region’s state representatives and found that Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, a Democrat serving her first term, pulled in an astounding $437,652. Nearly half of that money came from other members of the California Assembly.

The only local legislator who pulled in more was Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, who’s one of the most powerful officials in California.

Other Stuff We’re Working on

In Other News