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San Clemente Journal

We’ve Met Our Enemy. It’s Us!

Nov 01, 2002 08:18AM ● By Don Kindred
“We’ve got trouble, my friend. Right here in ‘OC.’ With a capital ‘e’ 
And it rhymes with ‘c.’ It’s got an ‘r’ and ends with ‘sion.’ 
Yes, trouble, my friend. Right here in our cities. It’s called ‘erosion!’”

Orange County's beaches and bluffs have been exploited by pounding waves, merciless rain, and ferocious winds. But we’re our own worst foe! We’ve constructed the groins, reefs, jetties, piers, and seawalls, revetment, foundation supports, caissons, train tracks, and breakwaters, dropped boulders on our beaches, and dredged sand from one place and put it in another. We’re the ones who created dams and concrete water channels to stop sediment from flowing to our coast, the ones who built structures atop crumbling cliffs, and the ones whose waste flows into the ocean on a daily basis.

The 42 miles of azure blue, ever-changing ocean, sometimes-soft golden sandy beach, other times rocky surfaces, fondly tabbed the “Gold Coast,” extend from Seal Beach to San Clemente. It’s a long reach of beach land with highly-valued homes fronting the Pacific Ocean, pocket coves bordered by natural headlands pushing out into the ocean, gated residential communities, three marinas, five pleasure piers, immense natural beauty, mobile homes, vertical gorges, graceful hills, inviting sand beaches, and armor protecting land from the sea. Gold Coasters don’t go on vacation. They’re already there.

Seal Beach, OC’s reminder of Middle America, is laid back and unpretentious. It has a small-town flavor and a fine-grained sandy beach, popular with swimmers and surfers. However, oil derricks loom offshore cause subsidence, extreme erosion occurs during heavy surf, and the beach is artificially nourished. The Anaheim Bay/U.S. Naval Weapons Station makes much of the ocean stretch inaccessible.

Just south is Huntington Harbor, an attractive and active body of water. Fronting the harbor are calm, inviting, and serene Surfside and Sunset Beaches. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has performed periodic sand replenishment since the ‘60s to mitigate chronic beach erosion problems. Beachfront homes, partially protected by a discontinuous timber seawall, are imperiled with every storm.

Inland of Pacific Coast Highway, south of Anaheim Bay, is the spreading 1,200-acre Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and wetlands. This one and a half miles has stunning shoreline on one side, a sprawling estuary on the other. Storm waves have overtopped the highway on several wintry occasions; beach erosion is evident.

Continuing southward, Huntington Beach, “Surf City, U.S.A.” is up scaling itself, not only as a haven for surfers who chase offshore swells but also as a major tourist destination. Yet, unsightly offshore oil derricks plague the offshore waters. Although there is partial bluff protection by rock revetment and rock groins, under severe wave conditions, beach erosion occurs. Beaches are often closed due to varying sources of water pollution.

Next, past the Santa Ana River and its jetties, we arrive at Newport Beach, the moneyed center of Orange County fashion, business and real estate. But, alas, enormous mansions are perched precariously on weakening bluffs, bolstered by heavy layers of concrete and embedded steel, priced at $27 million. Even in the less wave active harbor, concrete foundation additions and enormous seawalls support many unstable estates. In 1965, the peninsula eroded 165 feet before being stabilized by sandbags directly in front of property lines. Because of its continuous erosion West Newport Beach starts a beach nourishment project this fall.

From Corona del Mar to Dana Point, the stretch of 13 miles is almost entirely cliffed, with several picturesque pocket coves guarded on either side by rocky headlands pushing outward onto both the visible and below surface coastline reefs. Because of the coarse sandstone cliff composition, little resistance is offered to wave attack. There have been numerous cliff failings. 

Southward is the first of Laguna Beach’s four gated and grand communities: Emerald Bay, then Irvine Cove, Blue Lagoon, and Three Arch Bay, as well as the first of the several insulated pocket beaches so prized by this favorite beach destination. This Mediterranean-like coastal finger of alternating sand, rock, reef, and shoal is the victim of ravishing seasonal wave destruction and constant cliff erosion. Every few years, overflowing ocean waves invade downtown Laguna Beach. They combine with mudslides from Laguna Canyon to cause road closure, havoc, and inconvenience. Rebuilding begins a well-known cycle.

Further southward, Aliso Creek County Beach in South Laguna is a virtual family playground. Yet, here, groundwater seepage and surface runoff have actively eroded the cliff face. The circa 1971, all-concrete Aliso Pier was eventually torn down in 1998, at a cost of $1 million, leaving only restrooms and a snack bar. It had lost its battle with the unrelenting sea. Other Aliso Beach problems include fierce inconsistent wave movement of sand and tainted urban runoffs.

Dana Point, named for its headland sedimentary rock, begins at Salt Creek Beach. Bluffs surrounding the harbor have suffered considerable erosion due to water seepage and runoff. The ocean adjacent to Dana Point Harbor is fed by San Juan Creek, carrying sediment from the hills, which, when mixed with refuse, oil, and gas from boats equals pollution. Suspect water prevents swimming at Baby Beach, as well as the north end of adjacent State-run Doheny Beach, a favorite wedding and reception site.

All along the coastal bluffs, especially the Dana Point and San Clemente highlands, steel and plastic drainage pipes, muddy ditches along broken trails and former exterior staircases, plastic sheets, and other, often primitive measures have been taken to keep structures attached to the high palisades. Bluff failure has been a huge problem for the houses atop them and the autos and trains below them. A 200-yard long face of blown concrete resembling Disneyland’s Matterhorn has been harnessed to the surface, facing a long bluff directly above the beachfront highway.

Next, between the tracks and the ocean and just past flat Capo Beach are a series of large houses, protected by buttressing on the beach side but unprotected from the sounds of engines and whistles from the constantly passing trains. Adjacent is Poche, a small public beach near a privately run beach club. Poche’s worst characteristic is a storm runoff tunnel through which one must walk along a narrow bridge above a stagnant pool of languid liquid. A short distance of beach further along the tracks begins a long series of immovable mobile homes in a long monotonous line up behind huge foreboding boulders, commonly known as rip rap. From North Beach, San Clemente’s train station, cliffs extend to Cotton Point, site of Richard Nixon’s Western White House. Access to San Clemente beaches is greatly impeded by the railroad track, with only five legal crossings, lined by highly piled riprap along much of the five-mile coastline. With fragile cliffs, multiple and single residence structures peering over them, busy train traffic, and the enormous rock protectors, often as high as fifteen feet to hold up the tracks, and a beach width of less than 200 feet, San Clemente fears for its coastal life. Beyond the possibilities of future El Ninos and further damage to its alluring pier, State transportation authorities are pondering the placement of additional tracking along this precarious shelf of earth. Local citizens consider it an insane idea.

According to Orange County coastal engineer Tom Rossmiller, who considers the Orange Coast the most studied in the world, major coastal issues include: reduced beach widths, diminished supplies of beach sediments, negative effects of upland land use, river and stream channelization and flood control projects, sand replenishment, land subsidence and sea level rise, coastal structures, and artificial dunes.

Narrowing beaches don’t meet Orange County’s increasing recreational needs. During storms, temporary scouring by breaking waves exposes unprotected buildings, roads, sea cliffs and other fixed features such as restroom buildings and revetments. The rates of sediment moving along the shoreline or flowing from inland sources have lessened. Submerged, rocky, headland boundary extensions heading into deep water prevent sediment and sand movement. Although sand in some pocket beaches has remained relatively stable, beaten back and down in the winter and returning to natural state in the summer, sand replenishment moving up or down along the shore has decreased. Where inter tidal and submerged shore platforms are typically covered with marine growth and tide pools exist, artificial widening of the beach would actually be destructive.

Soil expert Dave Peter, who considers excessive water runoff our greatest human sin, believes that not all beach sediment is desirable for recreational beaches. Shingle, rock and cobble in front of sea cliffs may be uncomfortable to walk or lie on. Some bluff soils are particularly prone to crumbling, containing rock debris, marine fossil fragments, and shells deposited on the once-submerged surface; clays and mudstones can soften and liquefy; and there is also loosely consolidated sand and gravel deposited by ancient rivers and streams. Waves undercut bluffs and initiate landslides. Powerful breakers crashing into cliffs can splinter softer rocks into fragments that fall into the retreating surf. Incessant winter rains beating down on coastal bluffs slowly penetrate rock structures, lubricating the joints between the rock layers. Fractured shale, sandstone and siltstones chip and cause landslides, especially where the land slants toward the beach. Mud and rock can ruin paths, roads and structures and exacerbate wetlands.

Upland sources are still major suppliers of new sand, but the building of dams and changes in the natural drainage basins that discharge into the ocean, affect our beaches. The Santa Ana River watershed has been an especially important contributor of sand to West Newport and Huntington Beach. Inland flood control practices of containing rivers and streams in fixed conduits have greatly reduced the amount of water flow, and, accordingly, the quantity and the quality of sediment transported, especially in times of peak flood flow.

The natural or technological removal or movement of material or oil causes subsidence from an undersea location. At Surfside, Sunset Beach, Huntington Beach and some places in Newport Beach the effect of subsidence from near-coast water pumping and crude oil extraction is potentially substantial. Global sea level is rising and could even accelerate due to the warming of the atmosphere -- the so-called greenhouse effect. Warmer air temperatures and the melting of polar ice increase the volume of fluid in the ocean.

Beaches can be nourished to increase their width by depositing sand up coast, directly on beaches or in the near shore waters. Coastal Engineer Rossmiller views this delicate process as the most viable alternative for providing shoreline protection and restoring lost recreational opportunities. He also favors artificial dunes at Seal Beach, Surfside and Sunset Beaches, which have stopped ocean run up overtopping during high tides. “It could be worse,” he stated. “Catalina and the Channel Islands provide a great natural breakwater.”
Structures near and on the water have a definite effect on the flow of water and the transport of sand and sediment. Cement and steel pilings continue to be driven down into the bluffs to reach bedrock. Small structures, such as seawalls and revetments have been constructed to protect what’s behind them, but they may seriously affect the fronting beach, adjacent beaches or distant beaches, and nearby sea cliffs.

What’s being done about our coastal problems? 
Various public agencies share the responsibilities of protecting coastal structures, maintaining harbor entrances, improving the design of existing protection devices, or creating large sandy beaches. Their multiple approaches for managing shoreline erosion include dredging, constructing protective facing, nourishing beaches with sand, relocating threatened structures to safer ground, or avoiding development where potential hazards exist. Most common is constructing a “hard” protective device: a revetment, bulkhead, seawall, or breakwater. These devices reduce wave attack and onshore erosion, and strengthen public and private structures. Examples include a 6000-foot seawall in Carlsbad supporting a utility corridor and Ocean Beach’s seawall in San Francisco, which has girded Highway 1 since 1929.

The primary government agencies involved with shoreline issues have varying responsibilities, including, at the federal level, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). At the State level, agencies include the California Department of Boating and Waterways (DBW), California Coastal Commission, California State Coastal Conservancy, and California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), among others. The Corps and the Coastal Conservancy are involved with funding shoreline maintenance projects. The DPR must decide if and where to re-build and/or protect facilities after major storms. FEMA provides assistance during major incidents of flooding and storm damage, and helps in re-building damaged facilities. Other agencies, including cities and the County, have regulatory authority over building proposals, identifying geological hazards, and the California Coastal Commission has the responsibility to issue development permits, doing so on an individual project basis. Among the Commission’s charges is the protection of existing structures on public beaches in danger of erosion and to eliminate or mitigate adverse impacts on local shoreline sand supply. The Commission and the California Environmental Quality Act have challenged government agencies to preserve what remains of coastal California and guarantee public access to our valuable coastal resources.

Funding is continuously sought on all levels, encouraged by the coast’s annual 2001 generation of over $61 billion, according to San Francisco State University’s economist Dr. Phil King. The California Coastal Coalition (CalCoast), a non-profit advocacy group of 34 coastal cities, five counties, and a number of regional coastal conscious organizations was created by the City of Huntington Beach and is chaired by coastal advocate Orange County Supervisor Tom Wilson. Aided by Coalition executive director Steve Aceti, Wilson is credited with leading the movement into both the California and Washington congresses to bring influential political figures together to caucus coastal issues. Wilson said, “Every single one of us has a major responsibility to prevent pollution and pay the cost of sand nourishment and coastal survival.” 
These agencies and individuals, the Surfrider Foundation and other groups are harnessing the funds and support for beach replenishment, a rejuvenated Dana Point Harbor, and keeping our cliffs from falling down. They’re trying to rescue our bluffs and beaches. They need your awareness, dollars, and votes. For further enlightment, visit
“You can help, my friend?”