Published in Surfshot Magazine on October 25 way back in 2005, Jim Jaffee was interviewed about the loss of the public’s beaches via the construction of sea walls in Solana Beach. Amazing how this article could have been published today and still be totally relevant!
Having a beachfront home would be amazing, but would you want it if you knew that it would help to destroy the beach on which it was built? In essence, this is what is going on along the coastlines of the world and we don’t have to look any further than Solana Beach to find a heated struggle between home owners who want to put up seawalls and beach lovers who want to preserve the natural coastline of San Diego.
There are a number of effects resulting from the construction of seawalls, which can degrade or destroy the quality of the beach on which they are built. When you build a seawall, that seawall is almost always built on the sand. So there’s a thing called placement loss. That’s literally just the footprint of the wall or the beach under the wall that will never be able to be used. Placement loss adds up to a lot of area if you count up all the seawalls along the coast.
Then there is another effect called passive erosion. And what this means is that if you have a coastline that’s eroding but you still have a nice, sandy beach. If you fix the inland side of the beach with a seawall, and that water continues to rise, you’ll see a narrowing of the beach.
Then there’s another effect called active erosion, and that’s a controversial topic. The idea is that seawalls actually cause a backwash, which actively pushes sand offshore. Some engineers debate that it’s not a real phenomenon, others say it is. Most surfers who walk past a seawall where waves are smashing against them will support the argument that sand gets washed away at that spot.
Another big impact is called the end around effect where, basically, waves bounce off the sides of the seawall and erode the cliff directly next to it. So you build a seawall, your neighbor starts to suffer because of it, so they build a seawall too.
On top of those problems we see that seawalls prevent bluffs from naturally eroding and providing sand to the beach. Oh, yeah, seawalls are ugly too.
The Armoring of Solana Beach
Over the past 20 years the city of Solana Beach, California, has approved over twenty seawall projects on its two miles of coastline that contain bluffs sixty to ninety feet high. Recently, the rate of approval of these projects has increased drastically. Because of the destructive nature of seawalls, the San Diego County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, as well as many local residents, actively opposed these projects.
The bluffs of Solana Beach are largely made of sandstone and other weak earthen material. These bluffs have been under attack from waves and weathering for the last six thousand years where cracks and sea caves form due to marine erosion and cause the loose bluff material to become unstable
Unfortunately, much of the present development was brought to within eight to forty feet of the bluff’s edge. This development was done at a time when the bluffs were in a stable state. The El Ninos of 1982-83 and 1997-98 were years where erosion was especially heavy and the erosion of today is threatening much of these ill-conceived developments.
If They Are So Damaging, Why Are Seawalls Allowed?
This is where things get confusing because legal and environmental regulations need to be very complex in order to manage the vast expanse of development occurring in Southern California.
In summary, the city of Solana Beach has no Local Coastal Plan (LCP), which is a document creating laws that govern how the coastal land is developed and how seawalls are to be managed. Although the Coastal Act requires each city to have an LCP it has taken many coastal cities YEARS to write them and have the plan approved by the California Coastal Commission (CCC), the regulatory agency that oversees the coastal development of California.
So how does a seawall get approved in Solana Beach? Solana Beach has an ordinance that allows for the construction of seawalls. These structures may be permitted only if a structure is in imminent danger and if no other measure is available for protection of the structure. After the city council approves these permits, they still require approval by the CCC. The CCC has identified the negative aspects of seawalls but unfortunately, the Coastal Act is relatively permissive in allowing for seawalls. After the CCC, many of the applicants for seawalls must obtain a lease from the California State Lands Commission since they are building seawalls on the public beach. The leases have been granted for no charge.
Millions of people a year bring their families to the beach, lay out on the sand and surf on the waves that break on the beach. Yet only a handful of people come to the city council or CCC meetings to argue that having a healthy beach means everything for a great life and successful economy for California.
Jim Jaffee is a man who has been dedicated for years to do what he can to prevent the armoring of our coastline. Jim is an engineer who lives in Solana Beach, surfs in North County and protects the environment up and down the entire coast. His extensive involvement in environmental advocacy involves being an Environmental Issues Team Member and official Advisor to the San Diego County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. He is also the founder and currently Vice President of CalBeach Advocates. Professionally, he is also a member of the Ocean Engineering Society of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers.
SurfShot asked Jim some of the tough questions he is constantly faced with from people who are have questions about seawalls.
Describe your environmental involvement in Solana Beach.
I have been involved in this issue since 1996 when I opposed my first seawall. I have primarily served as a technical resource for the activists involved with this issue. All of this was done out of pocket. I have fought for meaningful mitigation and conditions on all seawall permits since that first permit, and I was successful in getting the Coastal Commission to change its policy for mitigating seawalls. I provided expert input for the Surfrider lawsuits in Solana Beach and this evidence was the basis of some of the key findings the court made in the Surfrider victory.
Do you think that houses should be allowed to fall into the Ocean?
Houses that were built in accordance with zoning and setback guidelines before the Coastal Act was passed are entitled to protection as long as impacts to shoreline sand supply are mitigated. Those built after passage of the Coastal Act are not entitled to protection because new development can’t require armoring.
Wouldn’t denial of seawall permits constitute a taking of private property under the Constitution?
Most seawalls are built on public land. Private persons have no constitutional right to use public land to protect their private property. On the contrary, permitting seawalls is a private taking of public property. California Constitution Art. X, Sec. 4 guarantees access to the State Tidelands for the people of California. Destroying the beach by building seawalls on them violates the public’s constitutional rights.
What evidence is there that seawalls or other shoreline armoring destroys the beach?
There is substantial research that shows that shoreline armoring has a drastic adverse impact on eroding shorelines. 85% of California’s coastline is eroding. On an eroding shoreline, seawalls will result in the narrowing and eventual loss of the recreational dry sand area. This is not an area of scientific controversy. This is exactly the reason that shoreline armoring is banned in six other states.
Ninety percent of the sand input is from streams and rivers. It is currently trapped behind dams, flood control projects and development. Isn’t this the cause of increased erosion?
This makes the sand input from the bluffs and beaches even more important. The solution is to address the cause by replenishing the sand and restoring the sand input. Armoring the bluffs makes erosion of the beach worse and more expensive to solve.
Public safety is at risk if we do not prevent bluff collapses and seacave formation with shoreline protective structures. A woman was killed in Encinitas in January 2000. Another man was killed in Carlsbad in July 2002. How can we keep people safe?
Proper warning signs and other preventative measures would avert such tragedies. Any guarantee of protection from a seawall would be moot when the shoreline is narrowed by the presence of the seawall on an eroding shoreline. All bluffs and seawalls will eventually destabilize and collapse. Should all bluffs be armored when proper public warning and education will minimize the risk?
Wouldn’t a managed retreat policy have a negative impact on a small municipality like Solana Beach?
Each municipality is required to develop a Local Coastal Plan (LCP) to be consistent with the Coastal Act. Municipalities are able to amend or develop LCPs for their special circumstances. Many cities in California already have certified LCPs that work for their communities. Managed retreat is consistent with the Coastal Act and required in Solana Beach to avert the eventual destruction of our scenic bluffs and sandy beach.
What would you like to say to surfers and people who visit beaches threatened by seawalls?
As surfers, watermen and waterwomen, we share the values of the Hawaiian founders of our great sport and their culture’s hallowed history as lovers of the ocean. They never conceived that anyone could actually own the sea or the shore. Yet putting a seawall on public beach is the ultimate taking of this shared gathering ground for the brotherhood and sisterhood of water people. We must develop sustainable policy that preserves this resource so this love of the sea and shore will perpetuate the generations.
A Real Threat
Seawalls pose a real threat to the quality and beauty of San Diego’s beaches and coastline. The coast has no voice except through people who realize what a gift it is. To give the coast a voice, join the Surfrider Foundation. To learn more about seawalls and other coastal issues, visit www.surfridersd.org.