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a san diego beachSAN DIEGO’S COASTAL TOWNS are on a beach-replenishment binge. For years, local beaches have been steadily denuded of sand. The problem was particularly acute in North County, where the oceanfront shoreline between Solana Beach and Oceanside was often nothing more than thin strands of cobblestone.

There’s been lots of finger-pointing—at such targets as Oceanside Harbor, seawalls and dams—and even more handwringing that the county’s signature beaches were literally wasting away to nothing. And so it was that authorities turned to getting sand dug up by developers or dredged from lagoons, rivers and bays and dumping it back on the beach. In 2001, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) coordinated a $17.5 million sand-replenishment project, funded by one-time state and federal sources, in which a dozen erosion-plagued beaches from Imperial Beach to Oceanside got 2.1 million cubic yards of sand that had been dredged from offshore sandbars. Last year, Imperial Beach said it wanted to use federal redevelopment money to put more sand on its beaches, and just three months ago the Carlsbad City Council approved a $52,750 contract for a Long Beach engineering firm to secure permits to take sand from underground or offshore sites as it becomes available.

Since then, the press has been full of glowing reports about the success of these projects. “Sand project ‘a clear win,’ study finds,” read a headline in The San Diego Union-Tribune in October 2002, citing a SAN\DAG study that found most of the sand was still in place a year after it had been dumped. But not everyone believes beach replenishment is a “win.” “Beach replenishment is not a one-time solution,” says Rob Young, an associate professor of geology at Western Carolina University. Once the first load of sand is dumped, he says, “You’re asking citizens to buy into beach replenishment forever. It will never end—in fact, nourishment needs will only continue.” Moreover, Young warns, unless the grains of imported sand match the original grains of sand, a replenished beach “tends to have a higher erosion rate than the natural beach did.” Particularly vulnerable are beaches covered with cobblestones, like those in North County.

Young is not surprised local officials consider the massive 2001 beach replenishment project a success. “You’ve had a pretty quiet period over the last three years as far as storms go,” he says. “All you need is one El Niño year and then every beach replenishment project is gone.”

A far better option, Young says, is to limit development— even to the point of moving existing structures back to give the beach some breathing room. “All the beach is trying to do is retreat naturally inward,” he says. “If the sidewalks and streets were not there, the beach would be as wide as it’s always been; it would have simply moved inward.”

Rob Rundle, a senior planner with SANDAG, concedes beach replenishment will have to be an ongoing project. “It’s a short-term fix,” he says. But curtailing development isn’t an option, he says. And while SANDAG looked at other options, such as “sand retention strategies” that involve putting up offshore barriers to change wave dynamics, “those haven’t really been tested, and when we got the funds, the consensus among elected officials was we wanted to get sand on the beaches. So that’s what we did.”SAN DIEGO’S COASTAL TOWNS are on a beach-replenishment binge. For years, local beaches have been steadily denuded of sand. The problem was particularly acute in North County, where the oceanfront shoreline between Solana Beach and Oceanside was often nothing more than thin strands of cobblestone. There’s been lots of finger-pointing—at such targets as Oceanside Harbor, seawalls and dams—and even more handwringing that the county’s signature beaches were literally wasting away to nothing. And so it was that authorities turned to getting sand dug up by developers or dredged from lagoons, rivers and bays and dumping it back on the beach.

In 2001, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) coordinated a $17.5 million sand-replenishment project, funded by one-time state and federal sources, in which a dozen erosion-plagued beaches from Imperial Beach to Oceanside got 2.1 million cubic yards of sand that had been dredged from offshore sandbars. Last year, Imperial Beach said it wanted to use federal redevelopment money to put more sand on its beaches, and just three months ago the Carlsbad City Council approved a $52,750 contract for a Long Beach engineering firm to secure permits to take sand from underground or offshore sites as it becomes available.

Since then, the press has been full of glowing reports about the success of these projects. “Sand project ‘a clear win,’ study finds,” read a headline in The San Diego Union-Tribune in October 2002, citing a SAN\DAG study that found most of the sand was still in place a year after it had been dumped. But not everyone believes beach replenishment is a “win.” “Beach replenishment is not a one-time solution,” says Rob Young, an associate professor of geology at Western Carolina University. Once the first load of sand is dumped, he says, “You’re asking citizens to buy into beach replenishment forever. It will never end—in fact, nourishment needs will only continue.” Moreover, Young warns, unless the grains of imported sand match the original grains of sand, a replenished beach “tends to have a higher erosion rate than the natural beach did.” Particularly vulnerable are beaches covered with cobblestones, like those in North County.

Young is not surprised local officials consider the massive 2001 beach replenishment project a success. “You’ve had a pretty quiet period over the last three years as far as storms go,” he says. “All you need is one El Niño year and then every beach replenishment project is gone.”

A far better option, Young says, is to limit development— even to the point of moving existing structures back to give the beach some breathing room. “All the beach is trying to do is retreat naturally inward,” he says. “If the sidewalks and streets were not there, the beach would be as wide as it’s always been; it would have simply moved inward.”

Rob Rundle, a senior planner with SANDAG, concedes beach replenishment will have to be an ongoing project. “It’s a short-term fix,” he says. But curtailing development isn’t an option, he says. And while SANDAG looked at other options, such as “sand retention strategies” that involve putting up offshore barriers to change wave dynamics, “those haven’t really been tested, and when we got the funds, the consensus among elected officials was we wanted to get sand on the beaches. So that’s what we did.”

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