San Diego beach replenishment sparks debate over environmental impact

12/23/2012 12:00 AM

12/23/2012 8:59 AM

ENCINITAS – San Diego-area beaches are getting a sandy face-lift as more than a million cubic yards of new sand are being pumped from the ocean floor to keep beaches looking pristine and inviting to visitors.

"We just don't have that natural progression anymore," said Shelby Tucker, project manager and associate general counsel with the San Diego Association of Governments, also called SANDAG. "The sand just isn't making it."

Officials say the new sand will be better for the long-term vitality of the beaches, a major tourism draw in San Diego. But some advocates and others are concerned about the biological and environmental impact of the new sand, echoing a larger debate about beach replenishment projects nationwide.

As sea level continues to rise and beaches erode, such projects have become more common. Work began in September on the $28.5 million San Diego project. It's mainly funded by a grant from the California Department of Boating and Waterways. The participating cities of Carlsbad, Encinitas, Imperial Beach, Oceanside and Solana Beach are picking up about 15 percent of the cost.

The project and others like it across the country spark questions about beach nourishment and its longevity, the effects on fish, birds and other animals and the void left at the offshore sites where the sand is removed.

"There are clearly environmental impacts," said Robert S. Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. "We haven't done a great job of documenting them."

The San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group, has installed five video cameras to monitor the surf and how the new sand is affecting the waves. Volunteers are watching the footage to study the effects, said Julia Chunn-Heer, campaign coordinator with the chapter.

Beach dredging projects have become "a necessary evil," Chunn-Heer said. "If they have to be done, we want to make sure they're done correctly."

The foundation will review the numbers of surfers using the waves in the area, both before the project and after, and will track wave-quality parameters, ride length and break-zone dynamics.

Meanwhile, SANDAG officials will monitor the depression created where the sand was removed, but the expectation is that the area will recover over time, Tucker said.

There will be some short-term environmental impacts, but nothing beyond what can occur naturally, Tucker said.

To ensure compatibility with the beaches, sand samples were tested to determine grain size, color, cleanliness and overall health, Tucker said.

A large ship pulls up sand from the ocean floor, like a vacuum, stores it in the hull and then pumps the sand back onto the beach, she said. The dredged sand typically comes from within 1.5 miles of the shoreline, and from waters that are 40 feet to 80 feet deep.

The look and health of the beaches are critical to the region's economy, say project proponents.

Dody Crawford, executive director of the Downtown Encinitas MainStreet Association, said she is pleased to see a lot more beach and fewer rocks along the shore.

"Having sand is really important. Our downtown is home to many, many restaurants. We're a big draw for many events," said Crawford, whose organization works to promote and preserve downtown Encinitas. "A lot of that is because of the beach. When they come to town, it's a big boon to our economy."

This is SANDAG's second major beach nourishment project. The first, in 2001, moved 2.1 million cubic yards of sand to 12 beaches. The sand lasted on average about five years, Tucker said, and the aim is for the sand to last a little longer after each operation.

Most work on the current project ended in early December, but monitoring will continue.

"It's not a one-time fix," Tucker said. "This is a maintenance project."

How long does beach nourishment last? Predicting that is akin to trying to predict the weather, said Young, the professor at Western Carolina University.

Some new sand in New Jersey has disappeared in less than a year while other replenishment efforts in Florida have lasted as long as 10 years, Young said. If an area has big storms, that affects where the sand goes.

In addition, much research still needs to be done on the projects' impacts on the environment and wildlife as well as whether and how to rebuild after storms like Sandy and who should pay for the projects, particularly as sea level continues to rise and shoreline problems remain, Young said.

"If you put a bunch of sand on the beach, it doesn't change the fact that the beach is eroding," Young said. "It's just resetting the clock."

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