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San Clemente Journal

Where’s Our Sand Going?

Nov 15, 2019 10:03AM ● By Donia Moore
by Donia Moore,

Remember those wide swaths of burning sand that we ran across as kids so we didn’t burn our feet between the beach parking lot and the ocean’s cooling waves? A recent trip to the beach this summer was an eye-opener, even though I live here! Somehow, I just didn’t realize how much of our sand has disappeared. I’d noticed that the beach area around the pier had shrunk, but I thought maybe it was just me remembering wrong. And of course I noticed a lot more rocks at the water’s edge than I had previously seen. But it was when I drifted down to my favorite South San Clemente Beaches that I realized something was missing, and it was the sand. 

North Beach in 1996.



 Beach Erosion Is Real
Unfortunately for beach lovers and owners of pricey beach-front homes, coastal erosion in any form is pretty difficult to reverse. Man-made-techniques such as beach nourishment-whereby sand is dredged from off-shore sources and deposited along otherwise vanishing beaches-have become a popular solution. But if the sand isn’t compatible with the original habitat, it can cause its own problems. Coarse Santa Ana Riverbed sand is not the same make up as the silty soil washing down from the San Juan Creek watershed.  Beach nourishment may slow the process, but nothing will stop it altogether. And it’s also hugely expensive for a temporary fix. 
According to Stephen Leatherman (“Dr. Beach”) of the National Healthy Beaches Campaign, beach erosion is defined by the actual removal of sand from a beach to deeper water offshore or alongshore into inlets, tidal shoals and bays. Such erosion can result from any number of factors, including the simple inundation of the land by rising sea levels resulting from the melting of the polar ice caps. In our area, sand basically traverses our coastline in a southerly direction and it often moves all the way down to California’s most southern beaches. The currents are the responsible parties for sending our beaches south. 

San Clemente has been working with the Army Corps of Engineers since 2001 to bring in 251,000 cubic yards of sand to fill in the area of Linda Lane to the south end of T-street. The project, which would widen beaches by about 50 feet, has a price tag of more than $11.5 million, to be paid for by the city, federal and state grants once approvals are complete and sand becomes available.

Although the Corps have been working as fast as possible to retrieve our sand and return it to our beaches, just as fast, the sand keeps working its way down the coast. They have tried dredging the sand out, and trucking it back up, but it’s almost like the sand in a giant hourglass - it just keeps slithering down. 

How Much Beach Are We Actually Losing? 
Like that hourglass, we may be running out of time as well as sand. Leatherman cites U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of the sandy beaches along America’s coastlines have been eroding for decades. In many of these cases, individual beaches may be losing only a few inches per year, but in some cases the problem is much worse. The outer coast of Louisiana, which Leatherman refers to as “the erosion ‘hot spot’ of the U.S.,” is losing some 50 feet of beach every year.

In San Clemente, our precious sand is disappearing right before our eyes. The effects of beach erosion are the most obvious at San Onofre State Beach, Hole (or Boca de Canon), and El Portal. Two to three feet of sand can disappear from our beaches after a storm or two.
Now scientists are predicting that between one-third to two-thirds of the beaches in Southern California will suffer such extreme erosion that they will be completely gone. In other words, the rising ocean will be slamming waves on cliffs and bluffs instead of rolling in and out on sandy beaches. Even the beaches that are not entirely gone could be much smaller and have little to no dry sand at higher tides. 

Scientists blame climate change for causing rising sea levels and also increased severity and possibly the frequency of harsh storms on beach erosion. 

“While sea level rise sets the conditions for landward displacement of the shore, coastal storms and currents supply the energy to do the ‘geologic work’ by moving the sand off and along the beach,” writes Leatherman on his website. “Therefore, beaches are greatly influenced by the frequency and magnitude of storms along a particular shoreline.”

Can Seawalls Help?
There is little that individuals-let alone coastal landowners-can do to stop beach erosion. Building a bulkhead or seawall along one or a few coastal properties may protect homes from damaging storm waves for a few years, but could end up doing more harm than good. “Bulkheads and seawalls may accelerate beach erosion by reflecting wave energy off the facing wall, impacting adjacent property owners as well,” writes Leatherman, adding that such structures along retreating shorelines eventually cause diminished beach width and even loss. 

Can We Prevent Beach Erosion?
The short answer is no, but if houses and buildings were not constructed so close to the coastline, erosion would not be such a pressing issue. Beach erosion is continuous, but can be evaded and slowed. Prevention methods such as sand dunes, vegetation, seawalls, sandbags, and sand fences also have negative effects on our beaches. Research points toward the fact that nothing man does to try to stop erosion can ever completely halt it, so the better solution is to avoid it by less destruction of the natural watersheds inland with less building.