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By Chris Duncan
The beaches of San Clemente are a quintessential element of local life, providing breathtaking views, drawing customers to our local businesses and affording daily respite and recreation for thousands. If we fail to protect our beaches, we risk losing not only our extraordinary quality of life but our cultural identity, not to mention our economic viability.
San Clemente is located at the top of a littoral cell that stretches from Dana Point to La Jolla in San Diego County. While wave action is not entirely predictable, the tides generally move from northwest to southeast, unfortunately carrying much of our sand with them. Ultimately, our lost sand is collected in a “sink” area located in or near Oceanside Harbor.
Many things contribute to our position as a sand donor. Heavy development along creek beds and coastal bluffs diminishes sediment carried to the ocean, while drought conditions worsen the deficit.
Railroad tracks, which seemed like a great idea 100 years ago, are now in the middle of bustling development and threatened by serious erosion. As we have seen at Cotton’s Point, “mitigating” riprap used to protect the tracks causes further damage, intensifying wave action and sand erosion that are already enhanced by climate change and rising sea levels.
Some of these factors are out of our control or simply too late to change. Handwringing and recrimination for past decisions will not bring our sand back. Our focus must be on realistic and practical means to replenish, maintain and protect our sand moving forward.
And we must closely scrutinize plans like those outlined in the San Diego Pathing Study to add a second set of rail tracks from Capistrano Beach to San Clemente—an expensive undertaking, which may exacerbate coastal erosion.
Congressman Mike Levin has successfully advocated for sand replenishment from Linda Lane to T-Street as part of his San Clemente Shoreline Protection Project, to be funded through the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
We hope the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin dredging and delivering our sand back to San Clemente by late 2022 or early 2023. Sand replenishment is a great start, but if we do not act now to maintain and retain it in place, we will merely delay the inevitable.
Here is my plan to save our beaches.
First, as provided for in recently passed California Senate Bill 1, we must organize a regional task force headed by representative local and county leaders from within our littoral cell, from both Orange and San Diego counties.
If we do not act in concert, we risk working in conflict.
Second, we must develop sand resilience tactics specially tailored to each unique beach area within our cell, such as living shorelines, buried cobble berms, or, where practical, even consider groins or artificial reefs in select locations.
This involves seeking input from coastal engineers, homeowners, nonprofits, and other stakeholders.
Third, we must closely coordinate our efforts with the California Coastal Commission, which has the final say in any shoreline protection project. While some vilify the Coastal Commission as an unnecessary impediment, this exercise is counterproductive to expeditiously securing necessary approvals.
The better course of action is to engage the commission from the start to garner its institutional input and support.
To be sure, saving our beaches is a massive undertaking. But we can do it if we focus less on optics and talk, and more on real solutions and strategic action. I intend to lead on this effort. Will you join me?
For more information on sand retention options, please consult our recently passed San Clemente Coastal Resiliency Plan, which can be found here.
Chris Duncan is a councilmember who was elected in 2020 and is serving as mayor pro tem for 2022.