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Coastal Commission approves harbor dredging project

Planners have long sought to dredge Pillar Point Harbor waters creating a slurry that could help replenish nearby Surfer’s Beach, but permitting is proving daunting.

Posted on September 18, 2023

The San Mateo County Harbor District cleared a significant permitting hurdle last week after the California Coastal Commission approved a Coastal Development Permit for Pillar Point Harbor’s sand dredging and eelgrass replacement effort.

For several years, the district has been entrenched in plans to dredge up to 100,000 cubic yards of sand from the inner harbor and dump it across 1,000 feet of shoreline at Surfer’s Beach. Because part of the east basin area the district wanted to dredge features eelgrass, staff had to devise a restoration plan to move eelgrass and establish nearly 4 acres of new habitat on the other side of the harbor. 

In April, the Harbor District received word from the project consultant, Brad Damitz, that, despite optimism the dredging could begin in 2023, the work couldn’t get necessary permits due to an “unending stream” of requests from various agencies. Damitz told the board the project would be delayed until the spring or summer of 2024.

The district still needs to get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The district has also partnered with San Mateo County to get an encroachment permit from Caltrans to have a staging area near Surfer’s Beach. But with this hurdle cleared, construction could begin in the spring or summer of 2024. 

Coastsiders who frequent the area likely don’t need a reminder of how bad the erosion has gotten at Surfer’s Beach, and boaters know to avoid the large buildup of sand in the harbor’s eastern side that temporarily closes boat ramp access. But the state agency offered a blunt assessment anyway. 

“Chronic erosion of Surfer’s Beach has resulted in degradation of the shoreline area and hazardous conditions for Coastal Trail and shoreline users,” according to a Coastal Commission report. “Absent a project, Surfer’s Beach will continue to be in danger from erosion and could potentially be rendered unsafe for public access use in the near future.”

The project calls for sand transported from the harbor to Surfer’s Beach in a slurry via a pipeline and placed behind a berm that will contain the mixture and spread it over the beach. Meanwhile, a new eelgrass area on the southwest corner of the harbor, isolated from most boating activities, would be monitored for at least five years. Nearly 8 acres of eelgrass protection areas have been established.

The Coastal Commission required the Harbor District to agree to a slew of conditions in exchange for the CDP. This included making a clear separation of construction and recreational areas, bird nesting surveys and best management practices for runoff, storage and equipment. 

According to the Coastal Commission, Pillar Point Harbor’s sediment historically was not allowed to be dredged inside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. However, the sanctuary changed those regulations in November 2021 to allow for dredging if it demonstrated “beneficial use” for the public. The Harbor District claims the project is an all-around public benefit because it will increase navigation safety inside the harbor, reduce beach erosion and protect an eelgrass habitat. The Harbor District is reportedly planning to meet with the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and other surfers to monitor the conditions of the beach and the waves.

On top of permitting, the district has to meet the timeline for developing the

eelgrass habitat, which it must do before pumping sand from one part of the eastern harbor onto Surfer’s Beach. After the district gets all the permits squared away, it has to do an eelgrass survey in the growing season window — from April through October in Northern California — that’s only good for 60 days. 

“The eelgrass mitigation timing is a little tricky but definitely doable with some good planning,” Damitz wrote in an email to the Review. 

First, the district must move sediment from the boat ramp across the harbor to the west basin area. It could take several weeks for the sediment to settle. Then existing eelgrass has to be moved from the east side and planted on the west side. Damitz noted that as the sand is settling, the district could start moving the sand to Surfer’s Beach by avoiding dredging areas with eelgrass.


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