The Coast News Group
Homeowners built seawalls at Grandview Beach to combat bluff erosion. Recently, the Encinitas and Solana Beach sand project, which would shore up beaches, missed an important funding deadline. Photo by Jared Whitlock
Homeowners built seawalls at Grandview Beach to combat bluff erosion. Recently, the Encinitas and Solana Beach sand project, which would shore up beaches, missed an important funding deadline. Photo by Jared Whitlock

Long-term sand project misses federal funding deadline

REGION — The Encinitas and Solana Beach sand project recently hit a funding setback. In the aftermath, it remains to be seen how exactly the cities grapple with coastal erosion.

The joint plan calls for regularly replenishing beaches over 50 years to shore up infrastructure and attract tourists. After more than a decade of work on the project, the cities hoped to get the OK for federal funding this year.

But the plan missed a key deadline.

The cities tried to include the project in a bill known as WRDA (Water Resources Development Act), a necessary step for obtaining federal funding.

Federal lawmakers will soon vote on WRDA. Yet the cities’ sand plan must still clear a few remaining hurdles and thus didn’t make the bill.

“We’ve been at this for years,” Encinitas City Manager Gus Vina said. “Lining the project up with WRDA has always been an issue.”

Vina added despite the setback, the city would likely try to attach the project to the next WRDA bill, whenever that opportunity comes.

Lawmakers agreed to a WRDA bill, which authorizes a host of infrastructure projects, every two or three years in the past. But due to gridlock, it’s been nearly eight years since the approval of WRDA legislation.

When reached on Tuesday, Encinitas Mayor Teresa Barth had yet to hear the city missed the WRDA deadline.

“The sand is our first line of defense in stopping bluff erosion,” Barth said. “And wide beaches are a big driver for our economy.”

If federal funding ultimately doesn’t come through, she said the city could explore other types of sand replenishments.

“It’s a big piece of the replenishment picture,” Barth said of the joint sand nourishment. “But it’s not everything.”

Sand from the Pacific Station and Scripps Memorial Hospital construction sites was carted to the beach several years ago, she noted, adding that’s one alternative that could be replicated in the future.

Those sites accounted for a combined 53,000 cubic yards of sand. For comparison, in Encinitas the joint project would place 340,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach during the first nourishment, and then 220,000 cubic yards of sand every five years.

Over the 50-year project lifespan, the Encinitas portion would cost an estimated $55.6 million, and $61 million for the Solana Beach part. Last year, officials said they wanted to begin the project in 2015.

As it stands, the project specifies that federal dollars would fund more than half of the project, with the state picking up much of the remaining tab, and the cities paying for the rest.

The joint nourishment ran into a wall last July.

That’s because the California Coastal Commission voted against it, citing concerns over too much sand harming marine life and the wave quality at reef breaks.

In response, the cities revised the project to unload less sand on the beaches. Which worked — the Coastal Commission signed off this past November.

Katherine Weldon, Encinitas’ shoreline preservation manager, said the Coastal Commission’s opposition last summer resulted in the project “losing a lot of ground.

“If it had been approved in July, we would have made it in time (for WRDA),” Weldon said. “There’s still a couple of things outstanding, but we would have been in the perfect timeframe.

“Now, it’s not in the timeline we were hoping for, but we could still move forward planning the project until the next WRDA,” Weldon added.

Biologist Dennis Lees, an outspoken critic of the 50-year plan, said the city should turn its attention to alternatives like sand dunes and managed retreat, rather than continue to chase the joint project.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he noted cities that erected sand dunes experienced less damage than those that declined to. And the approach is less likely to harm marine life, he added.

But ultimately, he said sea levels are rising, and in light of that, he called the nourishment project an “expensive Band-Aid” on the problem.

Due to the unstoppable collapse of massive glaciers in Antarctica, sea levels could rise another 4 feet within 200 years, threatening homes and infrastructure, according to research published this week in the journal Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

“The bluffs have been eroding for a very long time,” Lees said. “Replenishments won’t make a big dent in stopping it.”

He added managed retreat, which includes building farther away from the ocean, should be looked at.

The joint nourishment will go in front of the federal Army Corps of Engineers sometime this summer for approval, a requirement the cities couldn’t complete before the WRDA deadline.

As a separate plan, Weldon noted Encinitas is exploring taking sand excavated from lagoons on an annual basis to cover various beaches in Encinitas.

However, if the city goes that route, the Coastal Commission is stipulating additional layers of environmental monitoring.

That could be cost prohibitive, Weldon said.

“It was supposed to be a local, low-cost alternative,” Weldon said, adding lagoon sand might not shape up that way.

About a year and a half ago, local beaches received sand as part of a regional replenishment. However, SANDAG, which led the effort, has since said regional nourishments are no longer a priority, leaving cities to create their own projects.

SANDAG issued a statement following the story’s publication to clarify their position on regional sand nourishments, saying, “In 1993, the SANDAG Board adopted the Shoreline Preservation Strategy. The strategy identifies beach building (nourishment) and maintenance as the recommended approach to shoreline protection.

“Implementation of this strategy is included in SANDAG’s overall work program as it has been since the strategy was adopted. While we are currently focused on monitoring the sand replenishment project completed a year and a half ago, we continue to look for funds for future projects. At the same time, we continue to support other efforts in the region to add or maintain sand on local beaches. Last year SANDAG submitted letters to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the California Coastal Conservancy in support of the proposed Solana Beach and Encinitas sand replenishment project.”

Weldon said she’d like the sand profile to remain at current levels. This, she noted, will be challenging.

The upcoming winter will likely be an El Nino, meaning larger surf pounding the beaches and taking away sand.

“El Ninos, especially the ‘82- ‘83 one, stripped a lot of sand from the beaches,” Weldon said.

Ideally, Weldon added, beach nourishment would help make up for the loss.

This story has been changed since it’s initial publication date to reflect a statement from SANDAG.