If you walk along the train tracks at Calafia State Beach and into the Cyprus Cove area, you’re bound to come across the withered remains of a coastal beach where barely any sand remains—the result of ongoing coastal erosion.
Private parts of the beach used to extend further out and previously accommodated family picnics, volleyball courts and a playground.
To address the issue, Suzie Whitelaw, a licensed environmental geologist, wants to see a breakwater, or groin-like protective structure, built near the shore for neighboring Cyprus Cove and Cyprus Shore communities—the latter of which sits atop an ancient landslide.
Whitelaw, who lives in Cyprus Cove, has seen the beach diminish. With commuter train services halted again between South Orange County and Oceanside because of shifting rail tracks, she is calling on the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) to construct a breakwater as a mitigation measure.
“You look at beaches like Newport Beach and Santa Monica. They’re not eroding,” Whitelaw said. “They’ve got groins. The sand stays between those groins.”
OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter said the agency’s priority is to stabilize the track and safely restore passenger rail service through the area as soon as possible. A provided statement did not mention the breakwater proposal.
“OCTA is working with a geotechnical firm, which is completing final design on an emergency project to install ground anchors at the base of the slope to stop the movement of the land beneath the track to help ensure its stability and allow for rail service to resume,” Carpenter said of the construction, which is expected to begin soon.
“OCTA is working with all its partners—including at the state and federal levels, with the city of San Clemente and with Cyprus Shore property owners, along with Metrolink and Amtrak—to immediately work on this emergency effort to keep the slope from continuing to move, so service can resume,” Carpenter continued.
While this project moves forward, OCTA will continue to work with its partners at the state, federal and local levels to look at “more long-term solutions for this critical section of Southern California’s rail network,” Carpenter said.
Joe Street, a geologist with the California Coastal Commission, said a breakwater is an interesting idea, yet one that the CCC would need to evaluate first. Studies would need to be done and conclude that a breakwater is a successful option, Street said.
“I think it’s fair to say all options are on the table,” Street said of approaches to coastal erosion.
Being asked by San Clemente Times about a breakwater near Cyprus Shore was the first Street had heard of the idea.
Whitelaw is also calling for sand replenishment to be done on the beach at Calafia and in the area instead of the riprap, or large boulders, that have been placed on the side of the track as a stabilization approach.
“I’ve talked to the state parks people (and asked), what are you going to do about your park?” Whitelaw said. “We’re putting out more riprap. The technical people that I talked to, the bureaucrats, are saying all you got to do is protect your infrastructure. They’re protecting their infrastructure—the parking lot at Doheny, the parking lot down at San Onofre, but they’re not worried about Calafia.”
When reached for comment, the California State Parks department provided a written statement in which they confirmed they had spoken to Whitelaw over the past several months regarding her concerns about local beach erosion, particularly near the Cyprus Shore community.
“Staff from the Orange Coast District shared with Ms. Whitelaw the State Park’s Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy and the local interpretation of this guiding document,” California State Parks said.
“The department referred her to the City of San Clemente and their forthcoming beach nourishment program, and to the South Orange County Coastal Resilience Strategic Plan working group, which State Parks is a part of, to work through a regional planning process to identify the best solutions and projects along this entire section of coastline, including her particular area of concern,” the department said.
California State Parks said it’s hopeful that the City of San Clemente’s beach nourishment efforts will successfully replenish the downcoast beaches that Whitelaw identified as her primary concern.
Responding to a request for comment, the City of San Clemente pointed to the $9.3 million in federal funds that have been made available for the long-standing sand replenishment project that looks to place nearly 251,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach from Linda Lane to T-Street, thus widening the beach by 50 feet.
Feasibility and environmental review began in 2001 and was completed in 2011, and then approved as an Army Corps of Engineers project in 2014. The shoreline protection project is among others set to receive funding through the $1.5 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that President Joe Biden signed in March.
Earlier this month, the San Clemente City Council voted to spend $300,000 in grant money from the Coastal Commission to hire Moffatt & Nichol, an engineering firm, to conduct a feasibility study on what nature-based projects can be used to address erosion.
Whitelaw said instead of bringing in a 30-car trainload of rocks to dump for riprap, a 30-car trainload of sand could instead be brought in and deposited.
“The state parks people can move it around on the beach,” she said.
Asked her response to the view that beach replenishment is a temporary solution at best, Whitelaw said that is “absolutely right.”
“The sand has to be constantly resupplied,” Whitelaw said. “However, if you put in structures like groins that help retain the sand, then it’s not so temporary.”
Beach nourishment in general is an approach that the CCC has previously supported, Street said. Any mitigation efforts toward coastal erosion, he added, need to be “applied intelligently” and in consideration of a specific proposed area.
Whitelaw clarified she is not asking the OCTA to restore the beach formerly owned by Cyprus Shore.
“That beach is largely unredeemable, except for a short portion at the north,” she said in an email. “And in the future, I will be demanding that they don’t mess up the State Beach—that they work to proactively protect their tracks with sand instead of rock—whatever that takes.”
Whitelaw said the efforts to raise awareness and push public agencies toward taking action are mainly coming from a contingent of Cyprus Cove residents, including herself and fellow resident Gary Walsh, a former appointee to the city’s Public Safety Committee.
“I am forming an advocacy group to cover the whole San Clemente coastline—Save Our Beaches,” Whitelaw said by email. “(We) want to start with a core group of scientists and surfer-scientists, develop ideas for beach protection that are practical, cost-effective, and have a high probability of success.”
More information about the group is expected to be available in the future.
Walsh said while some people might think Cyprus Cove residents are just looking after their own section, surfers used to walk and ride their bikes through the area down to Trestles three years ago.
“They were walking on dry sand all the way down,” Walsh said. “A lot of them would ride electric bikes all along these tracks right along the side here. I don’t know if many do it anymore.”
John Dow, who also lives in Cyprus Cove and is calling for a jetty to be built, noted the beach erosion and said government entities were not focused on the “long-term” issue of sand erosion, because they have “narrow agendas.”
“That would be in everyone’s interest,” said Dow who also supports sand replenishment as a long-term solution, instead of riprap.
“I keep on saying, have the railroad protect their infrastructure with sand instead of rock. They keep on waiting until it’s an emergency,” Whitelaw said. “It’s not an emergency anymore. We know what’s going to happen. That’s going to erode away, and they’re going to continue dumping rock.”
Street said while some people think riprap makes erosion worse, he couldn’t say whether or not that claim is true.
“I don’t think we have any good data that says that, one way or another,” Street said.
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