50-year sand project reaches ‘important milestone’

The Encinitas and Solana Beach sand project — in the works for 15 years — cleared a key hurdle last week when top brass at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers voted 5-0 to advance the plan.

The mayors of the two cities, accompanied by local project teams, traveled to Washington, D.C., to make the case April 21 for the 50-year project in front of the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Review Board.

“This is an important milestone for a project that will improve public safety,” Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar said. The plan would regularly place offshore sand on local beaches to protect infrastructure and coastal access, she said.

In recent years, the 50-year replenishment plan has been hit with setbacks, but the cities have managed to move it past each roadblock.

The project was reworked in late 2013 to unload less sand on beaches, a change that satisfied the California Coastal Commission. A few months before, the commission voted against the project due to concerns that too much replenishment sand could harm marine life and surf spots.

Yet because the revised plan called for less sand on beaches, it ran the risk of losing federal funding. Specifically, Corps officials two years ago said they would be reluctant to back a smaller-scale project, because it wouldn’t be as economically beneficial under a cost-benefit ratio model.

In hopes of getting the OK from the Corps, the cities requested a hearing in front of the Civil Review Works Board, which gives the thumbs-up or -down to infrastructure projects across the country, Gaspar said.

Because of the Corps’ reservations about a smaller project, Gaspar said the cities were told beforehand they had a “slim chance” of winning approval. Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner joined Gaspar in the 15-minute hearing presentation in Washington, D.C.

Gaspar said it was key for the board to hear from the cities in person.

“They can read logistics and facts on a sheet all day long, but it’s really important to hear that personal narrative and how it would help our cities,” she said.

Further state and agency reviews are still necessary for the project to move forward. Nonetheless, Gaspar said, this was “a huge step,” particularly because the project is now much closer to being eligible for the Water Resources Development Act, a federal infrastructure bill.

Solana Beach’s first replenishment would be 700,000 cubic yards of sand, followed by roughly 290,000 cubic yards of sand every 10 years during the project lifespan.

In Encinitas, the plan would place 340,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach during the initial replenishment, followed by around 220,000 cubic yards of sand every five years.

For both cities, that’s less sand than was proposed two years ago, when the project first went before the California Coastal Commission. Back then, representatives from the San Diego Surfrider Foundation argued that the larger plan would have overwhelmed marine life and surfing reefs.

“Long story short — we’re happy with the changes that were made,” said Julia Chunn-Heer, policy manager with the San Diego Surfrider Foundation.

Chunn-Heer said it’s good that the amount of sand was reduced, and that the northern terminus of Solana Beach sand was moved so there would be less impact on Tabletops Reef.

Still, she said, for the price of the plan, the cities could have looked at buying bluff-top properties to allow for “managed retreat.” That way, the bluffs could naturally erode, putting sand back on the beaches.

She added managed retreat is “the only real long-term solution.”

But if the project moves forward, the impacts to surf spots should at least be monitored, Chunn-Heer stated.

“We need to protect that important resource,” she said.

Katherine Weldon, the city’s shoreline preservation manager, said the project would widen beaches to prepare for rising sea levels and future El Nino weather patterns.

“We’re not trying to respond to disasters, but prepare for disasters and be ahead of the game,” Weldon said.

If all goes as planned, the project will begin in 2018, according to Gaspar.

This article has been updated to clarify Chunn-Heer's view that managed retreat is “the only real long-term solution.”

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