Posted on January 19, 2021
Mark Olson took a break on his coastal bike ride to survey the damaged stretch of sand.
“Unbelievable,” said Olson, looking down at the battered beach from above on Thursday, Jan. 14. “I’m just blown away. I wonder what next that’s going to give?”
Mother Nature took a big bite out of Capistrano Beach, chomping away at the eroding coastline with the recent run of swell and high tides that have slammed California beaches in recent weeks.
The latest damage is yet another blow to the quaint Dana Point beach in recent years as officials, residents and beachgoers grapple with rising sea levels and continuing erosion that is quickly shrinking this small beach, a microcosm of what is occurring at other popular beaches Southern California coastlines, especially in areas like nearby San Clemente and Laguna Beach, Malibu and further south in San Diego, as well as areas in Northern California.
The latest area of beach chomped away left a 6-foot drop and unearthed a broken concrete walkway, wood pilings and wiring sticking out of the sand that likely were part of a buried ’20s-era beach club that was once was a jewel of the area.
“There’s two big areas just decimated,” said Toni Nelson, founder of advocacy group Capo Cares, noting the damaged areas are where big rock boulders or sandbags were not put in to protect the shoreline.
It’s not the first time the area’s past has been exposed in recent years, with major storms two years ago exposing a car that was cemented into a sea wall decades ago buried near a basketball courts and restrooms that had to be torn down due to damage two years ago.
Rock boulders and sandbags were put in recent years to try and slow the destruction of the beach, walkway and parking lot as officials try and figure out what to do with the beach. The “hard armoring” is a controversial method some environmentalists say causes more harm than good by stopping the natural sand flow.
The California Coastal Commission on Dec. 9 heard a presentation from OC Parks, the county entity spearheading future plans. The commission allowed for the temporary rock wall that was already put in place to stay for a year, with an option to extend an additional year given the county has made progress moving forward in finding a solution, commissioners said.
Craig Cheesman, a San Clemente resident, remembers the days when the area was so wide it had volleyball courts and fire rings in an area where now the sea on high tide covers the sand and slaps onto a row of big boulders put in place to protect what remains of the parking lot.
He walked down to see the damage, stopping short behind an orange net and cones meant to keep people away, though beachgoers traversed the damaged area to sit on broken concrete slabs during low tide to soak in the ocean view.
“Mother Nature, she wins. She’s not very happy with us,” he said. “It’s just astonishing… This is craziness.”
The county has held several community meetings to get input on the Capistrano Beach Park’s master plan. Most proposals include dwindling parking to make way for more beach, commonly called “managed retreat.”
Surfrider Foundation argues the beach should be returned to its natural state with a living shoreline, a mix of cobblestone, sand and native plants, reminiscent of before the beach club, basketball courts and parking lot were put in.
Nelson argues that even deep-rooted palm trees can’t survive the strong wave action and that a shoreline without protection would get battered even more.
After the nearby Dana Point Harbor was built in the ’60s, much of the sand dredge was placed on Capistrano Beach, allowing for a wide beach that existed until the early 2000s.
“You can see it receding,” she said.”No one replenished it.”
A small dredging project five years ago brought some sand replenishment, but it didn’t last long, Nelson said.
Sand replacement projects happen throughout Southern California, mostly spearheaded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which coordinates with county, state and local jurisdictions to keep beaches sandy, in many parts because they offer a buffer between the ocean and infrastructure and a healthy coastline is an economic driver for tourism and outdoor activity.
Nelson wonders if other solutions could be considered – maybe rock jetties like in West Newport, which were constructed in the ’60s after storms battered beachfront homes, a similar issue to what’s happening at Capo Beach and the nearby Beach Road community. A perk of those groins was surf spots that formed between the jetties.
“They pile up sand and slow things down,” she said.
There’s valuable sand nearby stuck in the nearby San Juan Creek river, but she can’t figure out which agency would be in charge of clearing it out to allow sand to flow down and replenish nearby beaches.
“When you look at a map, it’s full of trees, debris and sand that is trapped,” she said. “That belongs on the beach.”
Development upstream is also siphoning sand from making its way down waterways.
“They are paving over the sand, which will never make it to our beach,” she said. “The sand you take out to develop the lots, put on the beach.”
She said aerial footage shows sand sitting nearby just offshore – maybe a barge can suck it up and put it down on the beach? she wondered.
Ultimately, Nelson knows it’s a battle with Mother Nature they won’t win, but what’s left is worth fighting for, at least to save it for a few years so the next generation can enjoy it for as long as possible.
“It’s sad when you’re seeing we’re losing a lifestyle we’ve all enjoyed,” she said.