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Long-awaited harbor dredge delayed another year

Proponents have been waiting a long time for permitting to allow dredging around Pillar Point Harbor. One ancillary benefit would be adding sand to the beach at Surfer’s Beach, south of the harbor.

Posted on May 1, 2023

The Pillar Point Harbor dredging project was largely designed to do two things — aid navigation in the inner harbor and address erosion at Surfer’s Beach. After years of planning and brief optimism that construction could finally start in 2023, the San Mateo County Harbor District Commission received news last week that the sand will remain in place, and those problems will persist, for at least another year. 

In January, Brad Damitz, the district’s project consultant from Environmental Services Associates, told the board that construction could start in the spring or summer. But after unsuccessful attempts to secure permits, the dredging likely won’t happen until the spring or summer in 2024. 

“This has been going on for almost 10 years since I’ve been on this board,” Commissioner Virginia Chang Kiraly said. “And it just keeps being drawn out.”

In order to go out to bid, the district has to have permits in hand. Applications were submitted in early 2022, and the district has already gone through the California Environmental Quality Act requirements. But there are myriad jurisdictions that have to consult on and permit the project, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, California Coastal Commission, Regional Water Quality Control Board, San Mateo County and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The permitting process is compounded because the project is located in a national marine sanctuary, and the district is still getting an “unending stream” of questions from permitting agencies, Damitz said. 

Namely, concerns about certain special-status species, including black abalone, steelhead, coho salmon and green sturgeon, are causing delays in the review. Agencies also asked for a noise study and proof the dredged sand is not contaminated with toxins. 

“To be frank, the permitting regulations we have in California are probably the strictest in the world,” Damitz said. “And the permitting system is kind of a broken system. They’ve got a small staff dealing with all these issues.” 

The proposed pilot project calls for dredging up to 100,000 cubic yards of sand from the eastern side of Pillar Point Harbor onto Surfer’s Beach. About 1,000 feet of new sand will stretch from the riprap toward the stairway on the beach.

However, a large component of the project involves removing eelgrass on one side of the harbor where sand will be dredged and planting it on the other side of the harbor. The Harbor District had to create a mitigation and management plan in order to address any damage to the eelgrass before dredging can begin. 

The engineers prefer to dredge early in the year so the sand has time to settle on Surfer’s Beach before swells in the fall and winter disperse it, but the eelgrass complicates the project timeline. When the district does get permits, it has to complete an eelgrass survey in the proposed dredging area that’s only good for 60 days. Engineers then have to update the plans that go to bid, and it could take more than a month before a contractor is selected and ready to break ground. At the earliest, the survey can only be done at the start of April, the beginning of the eelgrass growing season. 

“If we don’t do it by June, July at the latest, then we risk not having those eelgrass transplants get established,” Damitz said. “Then we’re back at square one.”

Commissioners and staff both expressed frustration over the delays. To possibly shorten the timeline, a subcommittee is going to consider how to get other jurisdictions like San Mateo County and Caltrans to declare the damaged portion of the Coastal Trail above Surfer’s Beach a public safety emergency. In theory, that would allow the project to move forward.  

“For the folks who live on the coast, any loss of Highway 1 will be a major emergency,” Commissioner Kathryn Slater-Carter said. 

“They’re dredging Channel Islands Harbor (Ventura County) right now with over 800,000 to a million cubic yards of sand on the beach,” Commissioner George Domurat said. “They do that almost yearly, but there’s no eelgrass in the way or some other endangered species.”

Consultants are preparing the final engineering and design plans. They expect to have permits and go out to bid by late summer or fall 2023 in order to be ready to start construction in 2024. In total, the dredging could cost between $2.9 million to $3.6 million plus $1.8 million for the eelgrass restoration. 

Damitz said he asked the Coastal Commission to permit just the eelgrass mitigation so the first phase of the dredging could be checked off. Ultimately, he said, it’s an all-or-nothing approach. 

“In order to get permission to do the eelgrass, we have to get permits for the whole project.”


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