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Column: North County sand war underscores San Diego’s long struggle to save beaches

It sounds like a coastal version of a range war.

Yet instead of damming water upstream, Oceanside decided to move ahead with a pilot project to build a handful of beach groins similar to small jetties to retain sand — which otherwise would naturally move south to beaches in neighboring Carlsbad and other communities.

Carlsbad didn’t take kindly to this and the growing dispute rumbled down the coast, raising concern in Del Mar and perhaps elsewhere. The Carlsbad City Council last week voted unanimously to oppose Oceanside’s move, with officials having some sharp words about their neighbors for not communicating their intentions.

Whether or not they come to terms, the tempest may fade soon because the California Coastal Commission has not approved a new groin for sand retention for more than 20 years, according to Phil Diehl of The San Diego Union-Tribune. However, a spokesperson told Diehl the commission reviews proposals on a case-by-case basis.

Sand is a precious and disappearing commodity in the San Diego region and along much of the California coast. Beaches vital to tourism long have been threatened by erosion, which has been exacerbated by development and, even more ominously, sea-level rise attributed to climate change.

Beach communities have gone to great lengths to replenish beaches with sand. Some efforts have had success — even if always temporary — while others have been riddled with problems.

These include pumping sand from elsewhere through bypass systems, hauling it in by truck and using barges. Years ago, rock groins were built perpendicular to the waves to keep sand where it is on some beaches. Funding often came from all levels of government: local, state and federal.

“Within San Diego County, no one questions that most of our beaches are currently in a state of severe sand depletion. Given the structure and state of the littoral cell, sand loss will continue to be greater than sand input,” according to the local Surfrider Foundation chapter in a paper titled “Dynamics of Beaches Made Easy.”

The authors said artificial efforts may be the only recourse to “maintaining favorable beach conditions,” but added they are expensive and don’t always work. “Many are unacceptable because of their potential for adverse impact,” they wrote.

Over the generations, sand depletion has been caused by a number of things, some natural, some not. Rivers that brought sand to the shore were dammed and protection for bluff-top developments kept cliffs from eroding, at least temporarily, and contributing to beaches.

Some development has resulted in artificially broad beaches, according to Brett Sanders, professor of civil and environmental engineering, urban planning and public policy at UC Irvine.

“The construction of Dana Point Harbor in the 1960s and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in the 1960s and ’70s contributed to beach widening from Doheny through San Onofre beaches — where beach sand is now vanishing,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

Climate change, of course, will have a huge impact on beach and coastal erosion if global warming isn’t somehow tamed soon. Projections vary depending on the extent of sea-level rise, but a common estimate is up to two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches may suffer such extreme erosion by 2100 as to effectively disappear without extraordinary efforts to save them.

“California will need mountains of sand to save its beaches,” according to Scientific American in 2017.

A long-term plan is in the works to bring a lot of sand, if not a mountain’s worth, to the shores of Encinitas and Solana Beach. Sand would be dredged from offshore sites and pumped on the beaches periodically over 50 years.

The Coastal Storm Damage Reduction Project was estimated to cost $167 million in 2015 dollars and could begin delivering sand in about two years if all goes according to plan. Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, on Wednesday announced $30.5 million in federal funding for the project.

Sand replenishment projects such as this are often controversial, but typically far less so than hard coastal protections such as groins, jetties, sea walls and other revetments. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to get done. The first study related to the Encinitas-Solana Beach project was authorized by congressional committees in the early 1990s.

Building bulwarks along the shore typically is opposed by environmentalists and frowned upon by the Coastal Commission, in part because they can cause erosion elsewhere.

The Oceanside Harbor jetty retains sand nearby, but has helped deplete beaches to the south — areas the proposed groin project would be designed to help. Regular harbor dredging has provided sand for beaches, but the fine-grain sand there is washed away easily.

Amid growing public pressure to protect and, essentially, re-create beaches, the Oceanside City Council in August voted 4-1 to spend $1 million on plans for the groin project, which ultimately would cost an estimated $50 million. Mayor Esther Sanchez, the lone opposing vote, said it was a waste of money because the state would never approve it. She argued for expanding the city’s ongoing beach-restoration efforts.

Last week, Carlsbad council members criticized their counterparts to the north as they voted against the project.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Carlsbad Councilmember Peder Norby. “This move by Oceanside ranks as one of the most amateurish or one of the most incredible I’ve seen in terms of not working with other cities.”

Sanchez addressed the Carlsbad council, saying she wants to work collaboratively and added that should have been done from the start. Oceanside Councilmember Ryan Keim also called into the meeting and said while he voted for the project, he ultimately wouldn’t support it if it “negatively affects our neighbors to the south.”

Sand replenishment and beach protection projects have had their ups and downs over the years. A previous sand bypass system in Oceanside had great promise until it was scuttled due to mechanical problems and costs.

Perhaps the most unusual failure — in a uniquely San Diego way — occurred in 1997 when a Navy dredging project in San Diego Bay promised sand for beaches up and down the coast at little or no cost to local governments. The first delivery was to Oceanside, where it was soon discovered that ammunition dating back to World War II was in the sand being pumped onto the beach.

That was the end of that.