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Hurricane Sandy, Climate Change, Sand Replenishment and Surf

In light of the deadly Hurricane Sandy-related storm surge that rolled across East Coast beaches and coastal regions, is sand replenishment a long-term solution to our eroding beaches, sea level rise and our vulnerable coastline?

As I watch the news reports of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge, I think of the south county coastal area where I live and surf.

Imperial Beach is a low-lying coastal city connected to Coronado by a thin strip of sand. Any storm with a potent tidal surge would immediately obliterate the homes, dunes and streets of my coastal backyard.

Understanding the the impact of Sandy on the beaches, barrier islands and cities of the East Coast is critical for the residents of Southern California in order to evaluate the costly efforts to preserve local beaches.

Now that SANDAG is finishing up its $28 million regional sand replenishment project, we need to ask if having government agencies continue to spend billions of dollars nationally dumping sand on our beaches to forestall the inevitable reduction in size due to man-made erosion, violent storms and sea level rise, is really worth it.

That is especially true in light of new proposals by the Army Corps of Engineers to spend $261 million on sand projects just for Encinitas, Solana Beach and San Clemente. 

“Beach replenishment and beach nourishment are euphemisms for what are really beach dredge and fill that turns the beach into an industrial site during construction,” said Surfider Foundation Environmental Director Chad Nelsen. “They should be designed to minimize impacts to nearshore reefs that are important recreational (surfing, diving, etc.)  and ecological resources.”

Terry Gibson, a longtime surfer and fisherman from Florida who is the Senior Editor of Fly & Light Tackle Angler, has spent a considerable amount of effort evaluating the impacts of badly managed sand replenishment projects on the East Coast.

“Near shore reefs or other types of essential fish habitat are typically buried or silted over, without adequate much less kind-for-kind mitigation,” he said.

According to Gibson, “Chronic turbidity is often a problem. The entire slope of the near shore environment typically changes so that wave quality from a surfer's perspective is degraded or destroyed. And you often lose the qualities that make a beach attractive to sea turtles, not to mention the impacts to the invertebrates that live in the beach and are a requisite forage source for fish and birds.”

The San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation is currently monitoring the impacts to surf throughout San Diego from the current SANDAG regional effort via video monitoring. In Imperial Beach the SANDAG project has shut down the surf for about 75 percent of our beachfront.

"At IB we've been seeing a trend towards decreasing surfer counts and decreasing ride length," said Tom Cook of San Diego Surfrider.

According to Julia Chunn of San Diego Surfrider, “We hope that video-based monitoring, similar to our current Surf Monitoring Study, will be required of all large beach nourishment project in the future.”

For this reason, it is my view that the current SANDAG project is preferable to the incredibly expensive projects the Army Corps has slated for Solana Beach, Encinitas and San Clemente. Those proposed federal projects come with a price tag that in light of the cost of Sandy’s storm damage and federal fiscal woes, seems obscene.

Additionally, the federal project planned for Solana Beach-Encinitas, that in the long-term is designed only to protect 300 feet of beach, would involve more than double the amount of sand SANDAG deposited on beaches throughout the entire county. These Army Corps projects are relics of the past that do not reflect our climate-contorted and fiscally prudent future.

Clearly we are going to have be smarter and more resourceful with our tax dollars when it comes to conserving our beaches. The process works best when all stakeholders as well as scientists can come to the table with local agencies and evaluate the most cost effective and sensible solutions to coastal erosion, rather than when Army Corps push through massive dredge and fill projects with little public oversight and accountability.

“These projects should be considered temporary solutions that buy us time to find sustainable long term solutions to our coastal erosion problems because they are expensive, short lived and will not be sustainable in the face of sea level rise,” said Nelsen.

How has the current SANDAG project impacted your local beach? How has it helped or hurt your beach and local marine ecosystems? Share in comments.

Serge Dedina is executive director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Wild Sea and Saving the Gray Whale

Robin Clegg November 01, 2012 at 02:40 PM
It is unfortunate that they didn't consider the impact to the homes in IB. The Boca Rio Condos at the South End of Seacoast have been impacted by water under their concrete. Who knows what will happen at the upcoming high tide. What a terrible design project.
Jack Blackburn November 01, 2012 at 03:11 PM
In the last 60 years more than half of the IB sand has ended up in front of the Hotel Del. Seems to me it would be better to relocate that back South rather than dredging the "fine" sand from the bay. Another alternative would be to just let mother nature take everything South of IB Blvd. After all the Border State Park is doing just that and only the horseback folks get to make use of that beach.
Lynn Marr November 04, 2012 at 10:19 AM
I feel one can have too much of what is supposedly "a good thing." Because sandy beaches are good for tourism, doesn't mean that excessive sand, including construction dirt should be dumped on our beaches in the name of replenishment. We aren't having an issue with too many cobbles, now, yet a massive amount of sand is being dumped on our local beaches. Before, developer John DeWald was allowed to dump construction dirt, NOT SAND, from underground garages he excavated at Pacific Station, clouding Leucadia beaches. In Encinitas, BIG SAND is big business, with sand lobbyists like Steve Aceti of the California Coastal Coalition pushing hard to be subsidized by Encinitas, Carlsbad, and other cities as well as numerous private individuals with properties along our bluffs. The Coastal Commission won't allow seawalls, now, except in emergencies, for many good reasons. So property owners & business interests lobby cities to fortify their private property interests with a wall of sand. At Stonesteps the entire lower flight of stairs is entirely covered with sand, now. Fortunately, Surfrider will now be monitoring wave patterns to see how the excess sand negatively impacts surf. I don't feel that Fish & Games & other conservation groups have adequately documented & warned of the destruction of flora & fauna on our beaches when so much sand is pumped or trucked in, killing the kelp, impacting surf, smothering habitat, filling in finger reefs, destroying tide pools!
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