The City of Del Mar is on its way to demonstrating how managed retreat from the coast can be accomplished.

Surfrider and the City of Del Mar have historically clashed on sea level rise planning through the Local Coastal Program Update process. In the case of the bluff stabilization project however, both the City and Surfrider are lamenting the walling off of Del Mar’s beautiful bluffs and support dramatic public access improvements as part of comprehensive mitigation.

On June 8, the Coastal Commission discussed SANDAG’s proposed Del Mar Bluff Stabilization Phase 5’ permit (DMB5). This massive project to stabilize the rail line in coastal Del Mar will include a half mile of seawall flanking Del Mar’s stunning southern bluffs — this will cause a loss of lateral beach access and erosion of the beach itself that many of us will not live to see recuperated. 

Importantly, the project has been specifically designed to ensure that this section of railroad gets moved away from the coast in the next 30 years. 

The commitment to relocating the rail is so dramatic and so well documented in the permit that Surfrider is supporting the project as a special case study in phased relocation in light of sea level rise. Surfrider also is reassured by the consistent message and firm commitment from SANDAG that it is a willing partner in this plan for managed retreat. 

It is well known that across the state, critical infrastructure is threatened by sea level rise, and the Coastal Commission has recommended ‘phased adaptation’ for these big and expensive projects. 

Phased relocation is currently appropriate given the bluffs have been eroding for decades and the train could literally fall to the beach this winter if no action is taken. Some amount of stabilization is currently needed (although, yes — we would prefer it if our leaders had moved the train long ago or better yet — never put it on the cliffs in the first place.)

SANDAG presents DMB5 to the Coastal Commission on June 8, 2022
SANDAG DMB5 Seawall Rendering
SANDAG rendering of a portion of the proposed seawalls

SANDAG may be the leading organization to commit to phased adaptation of critical infrastructure by including a commitment to relocate the rail in Del Mar by 2035, and through the following commitments in the permit that was approved on Wednesday:

  • Removable seawall design (timber slid into steel beams)
  • Acceptance of a condition that they will remove the seawall upon permit expiration or when NCTD abandons the rail line

The height, length and placement of seawalls have been scaled down from original proposals to interact with upper bluff stabilization measures and actions to improve irrigation so that all the engineering features work together and the lifespan of these features can be limited to reduce impact.

Still, it is impossible to compensate for the project’s damage to the beach and coastal access in the short and mid term. The beach will continue to narrow until the seawalls are gone and relocation is pursued. Surfers will see a much more unnatural bluff and walls when they look shorewards from out at sea. Bluff and beach habitat will disappear.

Surfrider CA Policy Manager, Laura Walsh, providing comment to the Coastal Commission

Because a beach could not be ‘bought back’ to offset these impacts, SANDAG is embarking on a rigorous public access proposal. SANDAG has committed to the following public access improvements as mitigation:

  • Safe rail crossings at 7th or 11th street — Surfrider is advocating for crossings at both.
  • A vertical trail along the safe accessway
  • Improvements to the upper bluff trail.

Surfrider made a number of suggestions at the Coastal Commission this week and will continue to monitor this project to ensure that permit terms are carried out.