Cities back smaller sand project in hopes of getting Coastal Commission approval

Cities back smaller sand project in hopes of getting Coastal Commission approval
A surfer catches a wave at Seaside Reef. The California Coastal Commission denied the Encinitas and Solana Beach 50-year sand project, citing the threat to surf breaks as one concern. But several residents at last week’s City Council meeting said local surf spots have benefited from past sand replenishments. Photo by Jared Whitlock

ENCINITAS — A long-term sand project gained new life at last week’s Encinitas City Council meeting. 

Voting 4-1, Encinitas council members backed an alternative, scaled back version of the 50-year sand nourishment plan. With that, the project is once again due to go before the California Coastal Commission.

After more than a decade of work, Encinitas and Solana Beach agreed on a draft replenishment plan this spring. The goal: Shore up infrastructure and widen sand areas to draw tourists as well as locals to beaches. But in July, an 8-3 Coastal Commission vote stopped the project in its tracks at a critical time.

The eight coastal commissioners opposed said the previous plan dumped too much sand on beaches. This could unfavorably alter how waves break and hurt ecosystems in new marine protected areas, they argued.

In response, the alternative plan calls for dredging less sand from offshore for placement on the shore. For Encinitas, beaches would still be nourished every five years under the alternative. Yet the first replenishment cycle would place 340,000 cubic yards of sand — half the amount of the plan submitted to the Coastal Commission in July — on beaches.

And subsequent nourishments will place roughly 220,000 cubic yards of sand on beaches, 60,000 cubic yards less than the prior project.

Resident Bob Eubank said that Encinitas beaches were much wider in the 1960s, and surfing spots and recreation were better for it. Yet over time, more manmade structures prevented the sand from reaching beaches, creating a need for nourishments.

“I am disillusioned and blown away with what the Coastal Commission has done,” Eubank said, adding that Encinitas should find a way to regularly replenish beaches, because the city’s economic health depends on it.

Local Dennis Lees said that the Coastal Commission’s July vote is a strong signal that the city should re-evaluate its support for the project. He went on to state that the retooled project is only a “Band-Aid” that doesn’t fully address Coastal Commission concerns, including impacting the Swami’s marine protected area.

“We need to focus our attention, not on an expensive Band-Aid … but on planning and implementing programs for dealing with bluff failure and rising sea level,” Lees said.

Even if the project clears the Coastal Commission, funding remains an uncertainty.

The California Department of Boating and Waterways and the federal Army Corps of Engineers have stated they will fund most of the project, but only if there are clear economic benefits. Because the proposed alternative calls for unloading a smaller amount of sand on the beaches, that runs the risk of falling short of the Corps’ cost-benefit ratio, according to the city’s staff report.

Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer, who cast the lone vote against the alternative, said there’s a need for sand nourishments, but she had reservations with the project. She worried that the city could be wasting resources trying to get the Corps’ approval.

“Are we wasting time expecting something to happen just because we spent 10 years getting to this point?” Shaffer asked, referring to the decade of work that’s gone into the project.

Another hurdle: The alternative project must be attached to a national bill known as WRDA (Water Resources Development Act) to get Corps funding. To be considered as part of WRDA, Coastal Commission support, among other requirements, is necessary.

This summer, the Corps said the WRDA deadline was slated for the end of this year. However, the deadline has been extended for an unknown amount of time. Heather Schlosser, the Corps’ lead planner of the project, did not return a call requesting comment on the state of the bill.

Mayor Teresa Barth voiced her support for the 50-year sand plan alternative. Coastal Commission approval of the alternative would mean pre-approved receiver sites, making Encinitas a good candidate for future sand sources in case federal funding falls through, she said.

An annual dredge of the San Elijo Lagoon is one potential source, though that could carry a significant cost, city staff noted.

There have been two countywide sand replenishments. Most recently, a year ago, a separate SANDAG project placed 1.4 million cubic yards of sand on beaches throughout the county, including in Solana Beach and Encinitas. Yet SANDAG isn’t proposing funding for county replenishments in the future, according to Glenn Pruim, director of Engineering and Public Works for Encinitas.

“That was a pretty clear shot across the bow that the agencies are going to be left on their own to solve their problems, so reaching out to the federal government and continuing to work with them is, I believe, a prudent step,” Pruim said.

Several days after the Encinitas City Council meeting, Solana Beach City Manager David Ott noted that Solana Beach also gave the green light to the alternative plan.

For Solana Beach, the alternative’s first replenishment will dump 700,000 cubic yards of sand, down from 920,000 cubic yards. And subsequent nourishments — now every 10 years instead of 13 — will unload 290,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach, which was once 420,000 cubic yards.

The scaled back alternative will cost an estimated $55.6 million for Encinitas, and $61 million for Solana Beach, according to Kathy Weldon, Encinitas’ shoreline preservation manager. However, she noted those totals are “fluid” given the project’s 50-year span.

The Coastal Commission will consider the alternative nourishment plan on either Nov. 13, 14 or 15 in Newport Beach.

 

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