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San Clemente’s Got A Sand Problem

Posted on December 4, 2023

Coastal erosion has taken a toll on San Onofre, Trestles and killed local beachbreaks, but a new dredging project looks to put sand back on the beaches.

Coastal erosion is a rampant issue up and down California, and in San Clemente, it’s all but killed the town’s beachbreaks and is having a very real impact on iconic spots at Trestles and San Onofre—among the most utilized surf zones the in United States. This December, a dredging project is being launched to hopefully slow down the loss of sand and maybe even create a few sandbars along the way.

Last July, a study entitled “Critical Erosion Areas,” was released and revealed that in some instances beaches in San Clemente have been losing more than five feet of beach every year since 2001. As the WSL Finals in 2022 at Lowers, with a large south swell in the water, the event’s athlete and VIP infrastructure on the beach had to be abandoned when the surf washed out sand from under the structure’s foundation. At San Onofre, hour long lines exist to get into the State Park, not only because more people are surfing, but because coastal erosion has given dozens of parking spots back to the sea. Once reliably fun breakbreaks are essentially dead zones on the daily.

In a town with more surfers on the Championship Tour than anywhere in the country, where the world champions have been crowned the last six years, the beaches are disappearing. This is where the Army Corps of Engineers come in. Along with Manson Construction, the contractor for the San Clemente Shoreline Project, they’re going to be pumping over 251,000 cubic yards of sand from off the coast of Oceanside all the way to the San Clemente Pier. As designed now, sand will be dredged to San Clemente beaches every five to six years for the next 50 years. That means that by about 2073 more than 2 million cubic yards of sand will have been relocated to the pier area.

With coastal property and an important railway line increasingly threatened when the tides are high and the surf is up, the goals of the sand replenishment project are to slow down coastal erosion and help reduce damage to infrastructure during storms and big swell events, especially this El Niño winter. But all that sand has to settle somewhere, and as a surfer that means sandbars.

But pumping sand isn’t a permeant solution. Organizations like the Surfrider Foundation and Save Our Beaches San Clemente are pursuing more long-range ideas that will ensure that the new sand that’s being dredged sticks around for awhile. There are a few rough concepts being tossed around now, but no concrete go-forward plan has finalized. Everything from relocating the railroad tracks, to creating a living shoreline, to man-made reefs has all been discussed, but it’s a complicated subject with a lot of various stakeholders and interests to consider.

“Traditional sand replenishment has been a commonly employed approach to combat coastal erosion. However, it comes with limitations,” explains Surfrider’s Mandy Sackett. “Sand replenishment is short-term as the ocean can easily whisk sand back into the ocean, plus it is also expensive, requires frequent maintenance, and can have detrimental effects on waves and the environment.”

“Based on other restoration projects in the Oceanside Littoral Cell, it seems unlikely that this sand will appreciably widen the beach at San Clemente State Park, which is eroding at a rapid rate,” reads a statement from Save Our Beaches San Clemente. “Meanwhile, most of North Beach and the south end beaches have no dry sand left at all, only waves crashing against the rocky seawall protecting the railroad. These high rates of erosion are moving inwards and will soon affect more public beaches unless quick action is taken.”

If you want to keep surfing in San Clemente and surrounding areas, get involved. As a surfer you have valuable, important insight, experience, and perspective to share. The alternative is that the beaches continue to disappear and sooner rather than later the consequences of coastal erosion will have caught up with the premiere surf town in America today.


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