Work begins on next phase of project to stabilize Del Mar bluffs

Workers clear ice plants at a stormwater drain near 6th Street in Del Mar on May 11, 2020. The latest Del Mar bluff stabilization project has begun on the east side of the tracks in the area.

Workers clear ice plants at a stormwater drain near 6th Street in Del Mar on May 11, 2020. The latest Del Mar bluff stabilization project has begun on the east side of the tracks in the area.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Construction expected to continue for months


Workers with shovels and rakes began removing ice plant and brush this week to clear the way for the next phase of construction needed to safeguard the train tracks on the eroding Del Mar bluffs.

The railroad has been battling the elements on the coastal cliffs for more than a century. The latest round of work began Monday, May 11, and will continue through the summer. It is the fourth phase of a six-part stabilization effort begun in 2003.

Expected to cost about $5.8 million, the current project includes replacing part of a concrete storm-water channel along the hill above the tracks, repairing and replacing other drainage structures, and installing more concrete-and-steel columns, called “soldier piles,” in the most vulnerable areas.

The 1.6-mile stretch of tracks is a vital link in the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo rail corridor, which carries nearly $1 billion in goods and services and millions of passengers every year, according to the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency. The track is owned and operated by North County Transit District, which has its headquarters in Oceanside and runs Coaster commuter trains between Oceanside and San Diego.

Many Del Mar residents consider the railroad to be part of their backyard. Despite persistent warnings about trespassing, many people regularly hike or run along the tracks or cross them to reach the beach.

“It would be a big loss if we couldn’t walk up here,” said Del Mar resident Bruce Bekkar, a physician and environmental activist who frequently walks near the bluff. On Monday, May 11, he carried a pair of hedge shears and was sprucing up the scenic trail.

He said he hopes the stabilization project will protect the bluffs for people, not just trains, and that the transit district will continue to tolerate public access along the tracks.

“We need that now more than ever,” Bekkar said. “It’s a major resource to the south end of town.”

Erosion eats away the bluffs at the average rate of six inches a year, studies have shown. Long-time Del Mar residents often recall bluff-top sections that were once 40 feet to 50 feet wide, but now are only a fraction of that width.

Extreme storms have become more frequent in recent years. A powerful rain can bring a sudden collapse that bites away two or three feet of the cliff at once.

Last year, a Thanksgiving week storm overwhelmed the drainage system at the top of the bluffs and sent water cascading over the face of the cliff. The resulting damage briefly interrupted train traffic for detailed inspections of the tracks and required emergency repairs, primarily the installation of two additional retaining walls.

Erosion on the bluffs has always been episodic, usually occurring more in wet years than in dry ones. However, the increasing extremes of weather are more of a concern today than when the six-phase stabilization project began almost 20 years ago.

“I don’t think climate change and sea-level rise were quite the issue they have become,” said John Haggerty, SANDAG’s director of engineering and construction, by telephone last week.

Whatever the rate of erosion, the solution is likely the same, he said. Engineers and planners will continue to look at the best way to keep the tracks safe where they are until they can eventually be moved.

SANDAG is already planning the fifth phase of stabilization work, which will include more support columns, seismic reinforcement, drainage improvements and sea walls at the base of the cliffs. That phase is budgeted at about $70 million for construction, and so far the money is not available. A sixth phase probably will focus more on protecting the base of the bluffs, probably with more sea walls, for about $30 million more.

Long-term plans call for moving the tracks off the bluff. Preliminary studies have been done of several possible inland routes, each involving tunnels or trenches through Del Mar, and further studies are planned.

Estimates are well over $3 billion to build the tunnel route. With no construction money and little political will for the project in sight, that engineering feat appears to be at least 30 years away.

Phase Four, even though it is fully funded and began this week, also could face some hurdles. The steel I-beams used for the soldier piles are on back order and it’s unknown when they will arrive, Haggerty said.

Previous stabilization efforts have included the installation of more than 200 of the soldier piles, some of them up to 70 feet deep.

Crews are scheduled to work weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. along the upper and lower bluffs between 15th Street and Carmel Valley Road.

Construction access to the upper site will be primarily from the end of 7th and 8th streets. Heavy equipment needed on the beach will be brought up from the Torrey Pines area as the tides allow.

SANDAG advised employees and the public to follow federal, state and local guidelines for safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune