By Joe Tash
After more than a decade of study at a cost of $8 million, the future of a massive beach sand replenishment project for North County’s coastline hinged on the support of the Solana Beach and Encinitas city councils on May 8.
At separate meetings, both councils unanimously supported the project, meaning that for now, planning can continue. The project would have been dead if either council had voted against it.
If it gains final approval and funding, the project — to be carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — would involve moving hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand onto the beaches of Solana Beach and Encinitas over the next 50 years.
“We’re never going to get this opportunity again. We have to take it. If we don’t, we’re fools,” said Solana Beach Councilman Tom Campbell.
The Solana Beach council voted after listening to about a dozen speakers for and against the project. Supporters said it would protect the coastal bluffs from storm damage and erosion, improving safety for beach-goers and property owners, and offer environmental benefits.
Opposition to the project came mostly from surfers, who fear that dumping tons of sand on local beaches would affect the contours of the ocean floor and diminish the waves at some of the region’s best surf spots.
Former City Councilman Joe Kellejian, who stepped down from the panel in December after serving for 20 years, told the council Wednesday that if the project does not go forward, years of effort, thousands of hours of work and millions of dollars would go to waste.
“We have a very real shoreline erosion problem to solve,” Kellejian said. “Without this opportunity, make no mistake, we will end up with more sea walls in this community.”
However, opponents called on the council to work with the Army Corps of Engineers on a less invasive project that would involve putting less sand on the beaches, but also help preserve the area’s prime surf breaks.
Solana Beach and Army Corps staff said Wednesday that environmental studies determined the project would not affect 17 of 21 surf spots that were studied. Among those that would be affected, however, are three well-known surf spots — Tabletop and Pillbox in Solana Beach and Stone Steps in Encinitas.
“There are plenty of low-quality waves for beginners all over San Diego,” but only a few places with high-quality waves, said Mark Rauscher of the Surfrider Foundation. “You’re about to bury a few of them with this project.”
“As a resident of Solana Beach I am concerned,” said Allison Prange. “I am worried about my childhood beach. I don’t want to see it destroyed.”
Officially, the two councils voted Wednesday to draft letters supporting the Army Corps’ preferred alternative among a number of variations on the project. Without those letters, the project would not have been considered by Army Corps officials in Washington, D.C.
The next step for the project will be a hearing before the agency’s Civil Works Review Board on June 21 in the nation’s capital. Representatives of both Solana Beach and Encinitas plan to be on hand.
“We are going there to show our support for the project and give the local perspective,” said Solana Beach City Manager David Ott.
“This project is the poster child for sand replenishment projects in California,” Ott said, because of the critical need due to shoreline erosion. “If we can’t receive approval for this project, it creates serious doubt for future projects in California.”
Solana Beach has experienced dozens of bluff collapses, including one incident in which a “Volkswagen-sized” chunk of earth was hurled more than 50 feet from the bluff, Ott said. A woman died in a bluff collapse at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas in 2000.
After the hearing in Washington, D.C., the project will go before the California Coastal Commission for review, and then an engineer’s report will be issued by the Army Corps in the fall, Ott said. If the project receives all necessary approvals, it would be included in a water bill for potential funding by Congress late this year.
Design and coastline monitoring would take place in 2014 and 2015, with construction to begin in early 2016 and last about a year, Army Corps officials said.
In the Solana Beach segment of the project, 960,000 cubic yards of sand would be placed on the beach initially, and “re-nourishment” would take place in 13-year cycles. The total cost of the Solana Beach project is estimated at $66 million.
The Encinitas segment would involve an initial placement of 680,000 cubic yards of sand, with re-nourishment every five years, and the project is slated to cost $108 million.
Ott said one reason the project has taken so long is that an initial study completed by the Army Corps in 2005 was flawed, and the agency essentially had to start over.
Of the $8 million spent so far, about half has come from the federal government, $3 million from the state, and $1 million — in staff time and consultant studies — has come from the two cities. Design and monitoring work is estimated to cost about another $1 million, Ott said.
Even if the project receives all necessary approvals, Congress would still have to agree to fund each phase.
Ott said it’s worthwhile to get approval even if funding isn’t readily available. That’s because a project to dredge San Elijo Lagoon is also in the works, which would make available about one million cubic yards of beach sand. If the Army Corps project is approved, Ott said, sand from the lagoon dredging could be placed on Solana Beach and Encinitas beaches.