Coastal towns all have to grapple with sea-level rise. Commercial infrastructures like marine harbors are also causing massive sand depletion. One local in Half Moon Bay has fought for decades to save their local surf spot, Surfers Beach.
Surfer Brian Overfelt’s entire life revolves around this one little strip of coastline in Half Moon Bay, Surfers Beach.
“I remember getting out into waist-deep water and being terrified, the currents were strong and guys were taking off on waves,” Overfelt remembers.
Overfelt has shaggy red hair and a bushy beard. His entire right arm is covered in tattoos. But back in the 1980s, he was just a scrawny kid learning to surf.
“That would be my first memory of Surfers Beach, just going down there with my dad, not having a clue of what I was doing.”
A good surfing wave needs a shallow point in the ocean floor for the wave to break over. That point can be made of sand, reef, or rock. Overfelt says the sand bars at Surfers Beach made a perfect wave, like the first one he remembers riding.
“A set came through and I remember I was riding a Steve Iverson surfboard. I remember taking off on this wave, and I dropped in and rode the thing all the way,” he reminisces.
Now, Overfelt owns the Old Princeton Landing, a bar and grill inside Pillar Point Harbor. The harbor is right next to Surfers Beach, separated by a breakwater — a huge mound of boulders stretching from the beach super far out into the water. It shelters the harbor, and Overfelt’s restaurant, from big waves, but it also has an unintended consequence on Surfers Beach.
“We surfed it and took it for granted,” Overfelt says.
Around the 90s, the sand at Surfers Beach started disappearing. But just across the breakwater, the harbor is full of sand.
“And all they gotta do is get the sand out of the harbor and put where it belongs.”
Overfelt says the long breakwater traps a ton of sand inside the harbor and doesn't allow it to naturally flow to Surfers Beach. Overfelt and I walk out on the breakwater toward the ocean. Usually sand deposits downriver into the ocean. But in Half Moon Bay, the creeks flow right into Pillar Point Harbor.
“You look inside at the harbor and you can see the massive build-up of sand right in front of us,” Overfelt points out. “And then look down to the south and look at our eroding coastline.”
The sandy bluffs at Surfers Beach are also deteriorating quickly — almost two feet a year wash away. On a high tide, the beach doesn’t even exist. Overfelt points to the crumbling bluffs.
“...And on big waves and high tides, just chunks of those cliffs fall down,” Overfelt says.
On a low tide, Overfelt says there's not even much sand to lay out on.
“There's just these clay ripples, and there's just piles or rock out there, it’s just crazy,” Overfelt says.
This poses a constant threat to Highway 1, which jams straight along Surfers Beach. With no sand, there's no natural buffer between the water and the road. For decades, Overfelt has advocated for one particular solution — dredge the harbor. Take the sand out of the harbor and place it along Surfers Beach.
“They dredge every other harbor in California,” Overfelt says. “They take care of all beaches all over the world, and this place is just, like, this a harbor of ‘nothings happening.’”
Overfelt says the sand will protect Highway 1 from waves, and replenish Surfers Beach, but dredging is expensive. The Army Corps of Engineers built the breakwater back in 1961 and they acknowledged that their breakwater was a big cause for erosion, but they also said they don’t want to pay to fix its problems. Overfelt didn’t like that.
“They completely bailed us after stringing us along for years and years. That’s terrible,” he says.
The city and the harbor district weren’t too happy either, so with a few local and state grants, they are trying to come up with their own solution. Bob Battalio is the chief engineer for a million-dollar pilot project to dredge the harbor.
“We’re looking at what we call hydraulic slurry dredging,” Battalio says.
They would take big pipes and pump 75,000 cubic yards of sand out of Pillar Point Harbor to place along Surfers Beach. That’s nearly enough sand to fill up 8,000 dump trucks. But Battalio says that “the modeling indicates that it could wash away in one winter.”
There’s so much sand in the harbor that they could keep dredging it and replenishing the beach year after year. But that requires a lot more money and planning. Surfer Brian Overfelt isn't holding his breath.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence. I want this to happen. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. We should have done this a long time ago. So you take nothing for granted and you move forward until it gets done.” Overfelt says.
The erosion of a beloved beach isn’t unique in California. A lot of popular beaches are right next to protected commercial harbors. And like the one in Half Moon Bay, they’re also trapping sand flow to the beach. Take Oceanside beach in San Diego.
The Army Corps of Engineers pumps about 300,000 cubic yards of sand out of Oceanside Harbor every year to spread along their beach. That's enough sand to fill a few football stadiums. Even then, parts of Oceanside beach are at risk of disappearing completely. And it’s costly to keep up. In 2001, San Diego spent $17.5 million dollars to pump two million cubic yards of sand onto a dozen beaches. But by the next year, those beaches had already shrunk substantially.
And it’s not just the waves and beaches that are going away. Back on the breakwater, Overfelt reminisces on what his town once had.
“What about our beach community? We used to have a beach community here because this wave was so good here back in the day,” Overfelt says. “We used to hang out in this parking lot over here...we had like surf contests here. There was a flourishing, rad, small core beach community. it's gone…”
The pilot project to dredge Pillar Point Harbor was expected to break ground this spring, but that was delayed due to permitting issues. They are now shooting for sometime next year.