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San Francisco fights to keep the ocean at bay

The view from the Sloat Boulevard Parking Lot after a large storm. Photo taken March 17th, 2012
Bill McLaughlin
Surfrider Foundation
The view from the Sloat Boulevard Parking Lot after a large storm. Photo taken March 17th, 2012

The only thing more powerful than human will is Mother Nature. At San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, the two forces have done battle for years over wave erosion, but only the city has something to lose. With the safety of its wastewater treatment plant at stake on the one hand and a lawsuit on the other, San Francisco’s planners are attempting to find a solution that will placate Mother Nature and avoid the most expensive fix: retreat.

When Bill McLaughlin looks at Ocean Beach, he sees a war zone. Especially here at the end of Sloat Boulevard, where white-capped waves have eaten away large chunks of the parking lot. 

“This is one of the things everybody likes to do, sit in their car and watch the ocean. But the parking lot used to be way out there. There used to be another row of parking slots,” McLaughlin remembers. He is Erosion Committee Project Manager for the San Francisco Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal advocacy group.

Over the past 20 years, he’s seen more than half of the Sloat Boulevard parking lot disappear into the ocean. Looking out across the hood of his car, McLaughlin sees a temporary barrier draped with caution tape that flutters in the wind, and then a 20-foot drop. The beach below is scattered with bits of asphalt and concrete rubble. To the left, a wall of boulders stretches south and out of sight. The boulders were installed in 1998 and sparked the Surfrider Foundation’s involvement. McLaughlin recalls wondering what was going on with the boulder strategy.

Since then, that rock wall has become a battle line with the city on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. It was built to stop the erosion before it uncovers buried sewer tunnels that run underneath the Great Highway. If that happens, the tunnels could break and leak sewage all over the beach. Environmentalists don’t like the rock wall because it actually speeds up erosion.

Every winter, Pacific waves come racing in to crash on shore. When they hit the rocks, the wave energy is amplified, scouring the sand and causing the rock wall to sink. Inevitably, more boulders are needed to fill in the space left behind. The cycle continues until all the sand has disappeared and waves are left lapping against a jagged pile of boulders. No more dune habitat. No more recreation area. No more big surf. It’s a future nobody wants for Ocean Beach, but the city has made little progress on the issue.

Mark Massara, a surfer and long-time resident of Ocean Beach, is fed up. “They continue to dump this hazardous debris at the beach and our frustration is at the boiling point,” says Massara. Massara is also an attorney with the California Coastal Protection Network, an environmental group that is suing the city over the rock wall. He says the wall was built as a temporary fix, but has cluttered the beach for more than a decade. “I’m convinced, after working with the city for 20 years, that it’s going to take courts intervening, and ordering the agencies to clean up this mess is the only way it’s going to be dealt with,” says Massara.

If his lawsuit succeeds and those rocks remain on the beach, the city could be fined up to $15,000 for each day the rubble remains. Case hearings begin in April.

The city has some financial calculations to make. Lawsuits are expensive, but those rocks are protecting an even more expensive investment – a $200 million sewage treatment plant that is currently located in an erosion danger zone.

Marla Jurosek, a regulatory compliance manager for San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission says PUC funds are limited. “Ratepayer dollars can only go so far,” says Jurosek, “and looking at the sewer infrastructure, we have to prioritize that in a way that our governing bodies and agencies support.”

Environmental groups aren’t the only concerned citizens. Recently, the state Coastal Commission denied a city request to construct more, and more permanent, sea walls.

Charles Lester, Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission, explains, “We are looking for ways to avoid the sea walls if we can. We’re in favor of solutions that take, for lack of a better term, the softest approach possible and provide the most opportunity for natural physical processes to run.”

Lester says the Coastal Commission does understand the city’s economic realities, a dilemma that coastal cities face around the world. “Feasibility is sometimes a question of economics,” says Lester. “It’s not feasible to pick up and move San Francisco inland. It’s just not gonna happen.”

That’s why the city is starting to look for alternatives. Peter Mull, who works for the Army Corps of Engineers, may have the answer: “Construct a dune,” he says.

From an environmental standpoint, dunes are good because they’re built to erode. In the winter, the big waves grab the sand and suck it off shore to form large sandbars. Then in the summer, little waves bring the sand back to the shore. Across the seasons the beach may grow or shrink as much as 30 feet.

A dune will also make the beach community happy. Mull explains, “If that sand is placed over the rock that’s there, I think a lot of the concerns of citizens, like Mark Massara’s, will be ameliorated for a time because the rocks will be in a buried state. It would bide time for the PUC to realize the life expectancy of this enormous investment that was made out there.” Instead of removing the rocks, the city can let them stay buried under the sand where they can serve as a true last line of defense.

Dune reconstruction also makes economic sense because the sand can come from San Francisco Bay. “The beauty of the solution that the Corps can bring to the table is we have to maintain the shipping channel anyway,” explains Mull.

Every year, the Army Corps of Engineers dredges sand that collects in the bay using a huge ship called a hopper dredge, which Mull describes as “basically a huge vacuum cleaner.”

The federal government already pays to collect the sand and transport it over to Ocean Beach, so it would only cost the city around $2 million to rebuild the dune every few years, a small price compared to the cost of relocating the sewage treatment plant.

Over the past several months, Mull has been working with San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), a nonprofit that recommends solutions to city problems. Mull says SPUR will likely recommend building a 4,000 foot sand dune that would stretch south from Sloat Boulevard down to the Fort Funston Bluffs area as a crucial piece in their long-term erosion control strategy. The SPUR Ocean Beach Master Plan is expected to be released sometime in April.

Beaches make great playgrounds and beautiful backdrops. But, as Bill McLaughlin reminds us, they are very much alive. “Many people build homes, roads, right up onto the beach. We all want that view,” he admits. “But the problem is that we forget – or maybe we’re just starting to come to the realization – that beaches move around, and you gotta give the beach the amount of space that it needs to do that or you get these types of problems.”

Mull’s solution is at least a year away, which means more waiting. Whatever course of action the city chooses, it will likely be a lesson for beach communities across the country.