A Solution for Surfers Beach in Sight?


Posted by on Sat, November 14, 2009

Erosion of Surfers Beach west of El Granada, California, and sedimentation at the adjacent Pillar Point Harbor are both serious problems confronting the Coastside community. Representatives from many interested agencies, as well as members of the public, recently had an opportunity to share an understanding of the history of the area and consider possible approaches towards a solution to these problems.

You can watch the entire 3-hour meeting, including a very informative slide presentation, on MontaraFog at http://www.montarafog.com/Public-Policy/a-solution-for-surfers-beach-in-sight.html

Here’s a brief historical summary:

For millenia before human intervention, ocean waves interacted with relatively soft marine terrace deposits focused by rock outcroppings at Pillar Point and Miramontes Point, forming Half Moon Bay. The wave energy eroded the shoreline and ocean currents moved sediments to form a nearly-perfect log-spiral bay. The shoreline was in stable equilibrium, with typical erosion rates averaging a few inches per year.

In 1959 to 1961, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the outer breakwater that protects Pillar Point Harbor. The natural ocean dynamics were upset. Wave energy—especially during storms—was refocused just south of the breakwater, on the area known locally as Mirada Surf. According to studies by Ken Lajoie of the U.S. Geological Survey, blufftop erosion rates increased dramatically, at some points reaching five feet per year. One consequence of the manmade wave patterns is the near-total loss of the bluffs at Surfers Beach (and significant loss of sand from the beach itself), as well as continuing loss of the San Mateo County park on Mirada Surf itself.

Meanwhile, littoral transport of sediments out of the part of the ocean that is now Pillar Point Harbor was blocked by the breakwater. The result is gradual filling of portions of the harbor, especially around the boat launch area. At low tide the amount of accumulated sediment is particularly dramatic.

What To Do?

The obvious solution, it would seem, is just to move the unwanted sand inside the harbor to the other side of the breakwater, where it is needed to replenish Surfers Beach and reduce erosion of the Mirada Surf area. But such a simple solution faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Of course, just as a starter, no government agency has any money these days to fix problems. But even if money were no object, no one wants to try a quick fix that only results in other environmental problems later.

Experts from the Coastal Sediment Management Workgroup presented some ideas. Surfers Beach is within the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, as well as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and legislation prohibits disposal of spoils—i.e., the material that would be dredged from within the harbor—except at designated disposal sites. And Surfers Beach isn’t so designated. As one of the surfers noted, it would literally take an Act of Congress to allow an easy solution.

The group discussed possible approaches that might find support among all of the stakeholders, but as this was just an initial meeting to discuss the situation, nothing was decided.

The San Mateo County Harbor District convened this initial meeting of the Surfers Beach Shoreline Improvement Working Group for Pillar Point Harbor on Tuesday, November 10, 2009, at the Oceano Hotel, chaired by Peter Grenell, Harbor District General Manager. Attendees included representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, California Coastal Commission, Surfrider Foundation, Coastal Sediment Management Workgroup, United States Geological Survey, San Mateo County, and the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District. Brian Overfelt, Bob Battalio, and others spoke on behalf of the Coastside community.

Unfortunately, CalTrans and the City of Half Moon Bay were not represented. Erosion of Surfers Beach threatens the portion of the California Coastal Trail falling within Half Moon Bay city limits, and severe erosion threatens Highway 1. Portions of Mirada Road—the old Coast Highway decades ago—have completely fallen into the Pacific Ocean as a result of significant coastal retreat since the construction of the breakwater.

The Harbor District has not announced the date or location of a follow-up meeting.

That’s rather a misleading title, Paul:-) It sounds like this is an incredibly complicated issue, made more complicated by all the jurisdictions involved and the fact that none of them have any money to do anything, yet all of them have the pwoer to hurt or impede.

So what IS the most likely solution, seeing as how I live in El Granada right across from the Harbor?

“...Unfortunately, CalTrans and the City of Half Moon Bay were not represented. Erosion of Surfers Beach threatens the portion of the California Coastal Trail falling within Half Moon Bay city limits, and severe erosion threatens Highway 1…”

Way to go Half Moon Bay City Council. I guess they were too busy celebrating their recent political victory.


Thanks for reading the article! So the headline grabbed you, which is what headlines are for.

But seriously, you are right, the solution is a long ways off . . . so you must be very farsighted to see it.

I’ll be posting a follow-up shortly that summarizes a bit more of the discussion. The Harbor District is suggesting that there be a “demonstration project” to show the feasibility of beach nourishment or restoration, hoping somehow that this will be able to slip past the Sanctuary restrictions. They tried getting into semantics and wordplay toward the end of the meeting.

Here is a summary of some of the presenter comments:

Peter Grenell, General Manager, San Mateo County Harbor District, introduced the purpose of the working group, summarized the problem, outlined project goals and status, and introduced the concept of a demonstration project with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Invited participants (at the table) introduced themselves. Unfortunately, this portion of the video was lost. I will post the names and affiliations of participants in a later addition to this article.

Brad Damitz, from the Gulf of the Farallones National National Marine Sanctuary, explained that the regulations under which the sanctuaries were formed prohibited disposal of dredge spoils except in pre-authorized locations. There are such existing disposal locations in some other harbor areas, but not near Pillar Point Harbor.

Brian Overfelt, a local surfer, showed a variety of comparison photos showing the state of the Surfers Beach area prior to the construction of the breakwater, and the consequences of that improvement. He also mentioned Turkey Overflow, a location just west of the center of El Granada. According to recent informal conversation with a long-time resident, the El Granada community’s sanitary sewer needs were served in the early days by a community septic tank located near the present site of the El Granada Post Office, with discharge of partially treated sewage at the Turkey Overflow point. Formation of the Granada Sanitary District in 1958 began the process of cleaning up conditions at Surfers Beach. Brian was mostly concerned about losing the surf, because we are losing our sand, and urged a speedy solution that doesn’t require an Act of Congress.

Tom Kendall, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, described a Section 216 Initial Appraisal Review of Completed Projects method of obtaining funding to correct problems caused by Army Corps projects, without separate Congressional authorization. There is apparently some Federal budgeting process that can be used when a previous project has caused documented damage, which is easier than starting over with a brand-new project proposal.

John Dingler, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gave the substantive slide presentation recounting the history and geomorphology of the area. The relevant question: Is it appropriate for the Corps to participate in the resolution of documented shoreline erosion and structural damage along the northern open-ocean shoreline of Half Moon Bay? This requires comparing the natural shoreline with the disrupted shoreline resulting from the Pillar Point Harbor project, to determine whether there is damage, and then looking at the economic viability of a project to mitigate for those alterations.

A general discussion, including participation by the public, ensued.

Additional resources: Coastal Sediment Management Workgroup http://www.dbw.ca.gov/CSMW/default.aspx

OK.  Thanks for all the detailed reporting. I will stay abreast of this.

Comment 6
Sun, November 15, 2009 11:30am
Paul Perkovic
All my comments

Bob Battalio emailed me a copy of a presentation he recently made to Surfrider Foundation, San Mateo County Chapter, with nice photos and a good outline of the situation.

During the initial Working Group meeting, he spoke about some possible solutions. In his opinion, the Army Corps of Engineers should look for ways to pay for the sand bypassing the breakwater, with Corps money, and start right away on permitting. He notes that it has been 40 years and now is the time for expedited activity.

State funding may also be needed, and of course CalTrans must be involved to plan to move Highway 1 inland. Beach armoring never solves a problem, it just moves it further up or down the coastline, besides direct adverse effects on the environment.

He also suggested re-routing Deer Creek to discharge onto the beach, rather than inside the harbor breakwater.

I can forward his slides by email if you are interested, and will try to arrange with Coastsider or MontaraFog to post the file.

“One consequence of the manmade wave patterns is the near-total loss of the bluffs at Surfers Beach (and significant loss of sand from the beach itself),...”

Not to question that there’s been erosion, but *what*, exactly, is being eroded.  If one examines the face of the bluff at Surfer’s Beach, you will see that the natural bluff top takes a dive north of Coronado, and the level of Highway 1 is well above the natural contour. Most of what’s being eroded looks like fill related to leveling and elevating the road.

I’ve always wondered about the paleo-geography of that natural low area extending eastward into that dirt parking area east of the highway, and what the area was like even during the era of the Bath House, and before that. 

Might there be some old maps or photos in the County Offices that could help us aim our efforts to restore and stabilize this coastal system in accord with our modern demands?

Richard, My humblest of opinions is that, there is no such thing as, “restore and stablize this coastal system.”

Try these links (all safe):

Sweet little map:

Gary Griggs writes about the eroding seacliff and the breakwater, beginning on this page:

General Info on man’s attempts at “Coastal Armament:”

Thanks for the links…I am familiar with them.  I agree that restore is WAY too strong a word for this discussion, which is precisely why I added “...in accord with our modern demands”.  The system has been changed with the construction of the outer breakwater, and there aint no goin’ back.  But we *can* engineer our way over or around natural low spots, rather than filling them in and hoping that nature will just change her mind…My only point was that if the area of Surfer’s Beach (Coronado to the Beach House) was a natural low area, with a history of low-lying wetland geography/ecology, then maybe there’s some other way to stabilize Hwy 1 and the coastal system—perhaps a modest span of Hwy 1 that’s both elevated and porous, so that both wave energy (in) and sediment (out) could pass under the roadbed—I have no idea what this would do to the surf break, but no matter what, I think that the solution has to consider the coastal system that *was* in place before we came along and started changing things for our convenience.  Can we have a highway, and protect a harbor, and preserve the coastal system, and provide public access, and… No doubt it’s a complicated issue.  I’m only suggesting that we look back at what the coastal system was like, as a natural reference, before moving forward with even more modifications :-)

Got it, Richard.  You didn’t need those links.  Sorry for assuming.

What about moving Highway 1 inland 50 yards, through the Strip?  Seriously.

That’d give more recreation area and parking on the coast side of the road.

Let the next generation figure out the long-term solution.  Maybe they’ll have to move the road inland too.

Comment 11
Mon, November 16, 2009 5:59pm
Frank Long
All my comments

Rather than re-engineer the whole thing, has anyone thought of just pulling up breakwater in the westernmost and easternmost corners and putting in large tandem culverts at each end. The angling of the culverts could be parallel, or non-parallel, with the latter tending to deflect incoming and exiting water over a wider range. It would merely allow for water to enter and exit the harbor more efficiently, considering the damage that has already been created by the erection of the breakwater.

I had participated in the Current Study that was done not long ago and as I had pointed out, all that data was at the surface level; there was no attempt to ascertain currents at the 5’, 8’ or 10’ depths. My suggestion was to use a series of small floats tethered to suspended milk crates that would act as current drogues. One test might be releasing three different colored floats from the same location; one having its drogue at 2’ feet, the next color at 5’, and the third at 10’ (the 10 footers for deeper areas that might accommodate that length). Anyway, it was a thought, because I can’t imagine that there’d be a uniform direction throughout the entire water column at any given location.

But my vote would be to look into altering those two spots on the existing breakwater with at least two wide culverts (or a bridge) at each end.

My two cents

Comment 12
Tue, November 17, 2009 6:28pm
Carl May
All my comments

Re-sand the beach and the bluff retreat will slow way down. The logical, least expensive, most enduring approach to this lets nature do the work by re-establishing longshore drift southward of the sand now piling up in the harbor. Geologic engineers should be able to figure out how to open the breakwater in spots without losing its major protective benefits. Restoring flows in the harbor might also have pollution-dispersing benefits, depending on the design of the project.

This suggestion has cropped up a number of times in the past but has never been given serious consideration. Too sensible for the artificial urban mindset. I believe something like this is what Frank Long is saying in the message above.