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Bluff failure an ongoing issue

SOLANA BEACH — The vast Pacific Ocean, graceful surfers, splashing children, an occasional whale or dolphin sighting and picturesque sunsets can transform a walk along the sandy shores of Solana Beach into a Norman Rockwell experience.

But the fragile bluffs that loom above nearly all of the 1.7 miles of beach in the county’s second smallest city also make it dangerous.

Public safety officials estimate they make about 6,000 contacts annually, warning residents and visitors to stay away from bluffs and out of sea caves.

The obvious solution for increased safety would seemingly be to build something that would keep the bluffs from crumbling and falling.

But sea walls and other shoreline protection devices prevent erosion, the natural process that creates beaches.

The structures don’t allow the bluffs to be slowly converted to sand and cause existing sand to be washed away. When that happens, over time, the sea level rises and the beach disappears.

Sea walls have pitted the California Coastal Commission, environmentalists, surfers and beach lovers against bluff-top property owners, who built the existing structures to prevent their homes from eventually plunging into the ocean.

At any given time, at least one lawsuit is pending on the issue.

Meanwhile, keeping the public safe is an ongoing challenge. The ramp that leads from Fletcher Cove Park to the beach has four signs warning beachgoers of active bluff failures and unstable cliffs.

But there are few if any signs for anyone approaching via the beach from the north or south. On a recent day a Carlsbad couple resting under a bluff was told by a lifeguard to move.

A lifeguard warns a Carlsbad couple relaxing too close to the stable bluffs in Solana Beach. The woman said she was unaware of the danger. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
A lifeguard warns a Carlsbad couple relaxing too close to the stable bluffs in Solana Beach. The woman said she was unaware of the danger. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

The woman said she wasn’t aware of the danger. In fact, while walking south on the beach she said the couple had a conversation about bluff failures after noticing a large chunk of missing land just under a home on the Solana Beach coastline.

Oftentimes when rocks fall from bluffs near roadways, fencing or netting is put up to keep rocks and other debris from falling on cars.

Solana Beach City Manager David Ott said that’s not an option along the bluffs as there is nothing to secure the barriers.

“We can’t cut into the bluffs,” he said. “That would be a very unsafe thing to do.” Ott said he also doubted the Coastal Commission would allow it.

Sand replenishment is one way to keep the beaches intact and prevent erosion, which leads to bluff failures, he said. The county recently completed one such project and another long-term one is in the works with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Until that happens, the best the city can do is continue to educate beachgoers.

“Mother Nature is a big problem,” Ott said. “We try to notify the public as much as we can.”

Should an injury or death occur, circumstances would determine liability.

“A given incident would have specific issues that would have to be evaluated to ascertain if there was any liability, and if there potentially was, to what degree,” Ott said.


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