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The Price Half Moon Bay Pays for Losing Surfer's Beach to Erosion

Remember the days when Surfer's Beach had more sand and parents could drop their kids off with surfboards in a parking lot that is now long gone? Interesting what you lose when you lose beaches like this.

There was a memo sent from San Mateo County Harbor District general manager Peter Grenell to the Board of Harbor Commissioners on Nov. 15, 2012, that stated a number of important issues that the Harbor District would be looking at. Among those issues were "Surfer’s Beach Erosion Control" and "Pillar Point Boat Launch Ramp Maintenance Dredging."

In the memo it states,  “… no alternative disposal site to the federal and state-approved Perched Beach Site is or will be available in time to accommodate this dredging episode.”

That is really too bad as the sand that covers the boat launch from Deer Creek is sand that could go onto Surfer’s Beach. Surfer’s Beach is the proposed alternative disposal/nourishment site and Perched Beach (where the HMB Kayak Co. is located) is the current approved spot. That beach was created years earlier by placement of dredged materials. 

The Harbor District doesn’t have as many restrictions putting the sand there because its inside the harbor, and they don’t have the “artificial substance” laws the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary enforces outside the breakwater.

The  “artificial substance” law is how the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary is handcuffing us from healing our community.

They could also put it over at the Princeton shoreline (the shoreline paralleling Princeton Avenue inside the harbor) where they are in desperate need of beach nourishment as well, but Grenell explained at a Pillar Point Harbor Dredging: Public Educational Meeting on Jan. 8, 2013, that a new permit, even inside the harbor, would take too long.

So, instead of placing the “much needed” sand on Surfer’s Beach or along the Princeton shoreline, they are going to place more of it on Perched Beach. They are doing it because they want the boat launch cleared for the upcoming salmon season and getting permits for the other possible nourishment sights is going to take too long, according to information discussed at the meeting. They estimate they will clear 5,200 cubic yards. It’s a lot of sand as 20 cubic yards fills a semi-truck trailer/container.  

It’s very frustrating that while the San Mateo County Harbor District is forced to place sand where it isn’t needed, our cliffs between Miramar and El Granada erode, Highway 1 gets closer to falling into the ocean, and more and more beaches (sand) disappear. 

I know the San Mateo County Harbor District is very concerned over this matter and has organized and planned meetings/discussions over the years. As a matter of fact, due to a concerned citizen asking for answers, the Harbor District organized a last-minute small public educational meeting to discuss the dredging issue earlier this month. 

The Harbor District and the Army Corps of Engineers have a 50/50 cost share in studies leading up to these upcoming dredge/nourishment projects. Grenell explained at the Jan. 8 meeting that the District and the Army Corps have each spent $243K,  totaling $486K, so far and they want to see this through as they have so much invested.

John Dingler and Tom Kendall spoke on behalf of the Army Corps. Their message was clear as Dingler explained, “If the costs of the project exceed the benefits then the project will not move forward.” 

I want to focus on this because I find it offensive. Dingler and Kendall advised over and over again, in many different ways, that we have to find a way to prove the economic benefits of the proposed beach nourishment project. I believe the Pillar Point Harbor and Surfer’s Beach areas are gems in our community, and they should be maintained and nourished as such. 

Imagine a cleaned-out harbor with sufficient depth again for safe navigation, boat mooring/parking back to where it belongs, and routine maintenance and dredging. Imagine a well-nourished Surfer’s Beach all the way down to Half Moon Bay State Beach so that the cliff’s erosion slows to a crawl and the beaches begin to grow. There would be a lot more beach out there for recreation and activities.  

Although you can see the truth of this in the past, when the beaches were large and gradually sloping, Kendall of the Army Corps said, “Unfortunately, we are not allowed to use the past to show value,” and later said, “We are not allowed to tell the economic story of better recreation.”  

Interesting what you lose when you lose beaches like this community has. 

The economic value is easily beyond millions. How could the Army Corps’ economists not take into account all the amazing things that would happen if we began to nourish our beaches? Dredging the Pillar Point Harbor is the beginning to so many great scenarios on the Coastside. It would be the beginning of a more beautiful, more protected shoreline.

Let's take a look at this a little differently. Let's throw a little emotion and surfing into this situation and provide some history to show how priceless this beach really is.

I first began surfing at Surfer’s Beach in the 1980s. The beach was large and there was quite a scene. Turkey Overflow was a large lot that extended over 333 feet further West from the Coronado stoplight. The beach was so big that parents would drop their kids off to play on the beach and surf all day. We built fires almost everyday and used them to warm up. Many more families would hang out down there and have normal beach recreation. Normal is compared to what we have now where even at the lowest tides there is little beach. 

The surf quality at Surfer’s Beach was really good and it put El Granada on the map as a real surfing destination. Miramar Surf Shop held surf contests there and the rocks and beach would be lined with people watching and cheering. We had a real surf culture where people that surfed and were related to surfing got to know one another. A lot of time was spent surfing and hanging out at the breakwater.  

Today doesn’t compare to what we used to have. It was a real, classic, California beach-town scene (how much is that worth?). The people you saw the most were the local crew that surfed the breakwater when it was good, and it was good a lot. A few of them are still around today, but most of the locals that spent their days at the El Granada Breakwater and Surfer’s Beach have moved on. 

It hit home for me hard at a recent formal gathering that took place at Surfer’s Beach this past December. Actually, the gathering was in the breakwater parking lot because there isn’t any beach anymore to hang out on. One of the old-school locals passed away suddenly, and we organized a paddle-out. Flowers were organized and anyone that wanted was invited to come to the breakwater.

Of the few hundred people that congregated in Jasiri’s memory about 75-100 people paddled out where we formed a circle, threw flowers and remembered our friend. I hadn’t seen many of these people since the beaches and waves went away years ago. It was a very sad occasion, but seeing so many legendary characters was comforting to everyone. Many of us are still reeling over the experience and wish we could all hang out more often. Seeing those old friends and remembering what Surfer’s Beach and the El Granada Breakwater used to be like was like looking back at a paradise. For those few hours while we honored our friend, it felt like we were back at that paradise; just because we were together (how much is that worth?).   

Seeing all the sand resource we have and realizing the potential of beach nourishment makes me believe we can build a paradise. With a maintained harbor, nourished beaches, and some other long-term solutions to help protect and beautify this area of our community; I can’t understand why the economic worth is even in question.  

How can you put any price on the priceless things I’m talking about? How much is our shoreline and beaches inside the bay of Half Moon Bay worth? How much is a real surfing community worth and the place we all hang out everyday? How much is an endangered species worth (the Snowy Plover needs sand further to the south)? How much is Highway 1 worth? How much are all the houses and businesses that are threatened by this very erosion worth? How much is a healed community with a new surfing culture and a place for families and friends to congregate worth? 

I can tell you all this: It's worth a lot more than whatever it costs to make it happen! It would change our lives!

Read here Brian Overfelt's first piece about how dredging the harbor and giving sand back to Surfer's Beach will save the Coastline from erosion.

Information in this article was provided from the Pillar Point Harbor Dredging: Public Educational Meeting on Jan. 8, 2013.

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Howard Marlowe January 17, 2013 at 10:35 PM
Having years of experience working on coastal studies and projects connected with the Coast, there is often more than one way to get sand on the beach with the feds as a cost-share partner. The eroding cliffs and Highway mentioned in this piece afford opportunities to look beyond the limitations of the normal Corps economic study. Howard Marlowe howard.marlowe@aldenst.com

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