The future of Ocean Beach: dangerous debris piles or natural sandy beach?
Opinion By Mark Massara
What do we want the southern part of Ocean Beach to be like in the future? Do we want an industrialized beach cluttered with chunks of broken sidewalks and old pavement, or do we want a place where careful management allows for surfing, fishing or simply walking along the shore? It’s time to choose.
The California Coastal Commission recently struck an important blow in the struggle over the future of Ocean Beach by rejecting an unwise and ineffective plan to dump more rubble onto the sandy beach in an ultimately counterproductive attempt to protect nearby wastewater infrastructure.
But as significant as it is, the commission’s decision is just one piece of a complex, long-term process of choosing a path for an area of precious coastline where for more than 15 years San Francisco City bureaucrats have dumped rocks, sidewalk and pavement debris, rebar, poles, and other assorted junk and rubbish onto the beach and into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area with astonishing regularity and commitment.
Coastal Commission rebukes San Francisco
In July the California Coastal Commission unanimously denied a formal request by San Francisco to leave in place the debris it has strewn across Ocean Beach from Sloat Boulevard south to the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant, including hundreds of feet of rock revetments built without permits in 1997, and the commission also refused the City’s request to add even more rubble and two retaining walls.
The Coastal Commission is tasked with upholding the California Coastal Act, the landmark coastal-protection initiative passed in 1972 by voters. The act is designed to protect coastal resources and public access to beaches.
The entire Coastal Commission staff analysis, including vivid photographs, is available online. Photographs over the past 50 years are available at the California Coastal Records Project, and the San Francisco Surfrider Foundation maintains a blog regarding the situation.
To put the matter in context, the entire area, which now resembles a third-world war zone, is actually a national park — part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Imagine if the City of Merced suddenly concluded that the Merced River through Yosemite Valley posed a danger, and tried a stunt like dumping old sidewalks and rebar in Yosemite Park.
The Coastal Commission ruled the situation untenable and the City’s strategy, or lack thereof, unacceptable. As the hearing unfolded, commissioners were astonished that instead of a long-term plan to deal with continuing erosion, the City was instead asking for permission to continue to dump junk onto the beach.
During the hearing the City took the position that “vital infrastructure” is threatened and must be protected. What wasn’t clear, though, is what the City considers “vital” and at what point it is considered “threatened.”
For example, the restroom at the Sloat Boulevard parking lot and the roadway could easily be moved to provide for managed retreat and bluff restoration. Restored bluffs are the best defense for a rising ocean. In fact, the National Park Service, in their letter to the Coastal Commission regarding the Sloat situation, said it believes the rock revetments constructed by the City are actually exacerbating erosion in the area. This would confirm what experts have long known — that sea walls and shoreline armoring don’t stop erosion, they make it worse.
Coastal Commission members took umbrage at San Francisco’s use of trash to stop erosion, a technique long ago discredited in California. Commissioner Brian Brennan from Ventura pointed to a successful program of rock removal and shoreline retreat and restoration at the Ventura Fairgrounds in Southern California.
Commissioner Mark Stone of Santa Cruz County referred to a project in which his county spent many millions of dollars along East Cliff Drive at Pleasure Point to construct a vertical seawall. In contrast to San Francisco’s proposal, that seawall visually matches the existing bluff, and includes formal stairways, emergency-escape goat trails, view benches, parks, restrooms, and hiking and biking trails.
Other commissioners concurred that the type of debris dumping San Francisco has engaged in would never be permitted in any other California coastal community. The fact that the City claims on its website to be the “Greenest City in North America” just adds insult to the abuse done at Ocean Beach.
In legal terms, all the debris is now illegal. The illegality is ironic inasmuch the San Francisco Board of Supervisors basically ordered the Department of Public Works to stop dumping rocks, remove old debris and do long term planning for the Sloat area way back in 1999 [EDITOR'S NOTE: City and County of San Francisco, Board of Supervisors, Resolution 698-99, File 991163, Resolution on Ocean Beach and Great Highway Emergency Authorization. July 30, 1999]. Yet DPW, for reasons not clear, ignored Mayor Willie Brown and the Board of Supervisors, and has continued to run amok and make a mess of the area since.
What happens next is that the City will be given an opportunity to remove the offending debris and rocks. Should San Francisco continue to ignore the Coastal Act they will be subject to fines and penalties of up to $15,000 per day. Based upon DPW’s past actions and continuing reliance on lobbyists urging more dumping of rocks and rubbish, tens of millions of dollars in civil fines and penalties are a distinct possibility.
What does the future hold for Ocean Beach?
Fortunately, in addition to the 1999 Board of Supervisors resolution, there is an ongoing master-plan effort for Ocean Beach that will be concluded around the end of the year. In public meetings thus far, activists and the National Park Service have shown overwhelming support for the protection of natural resources at Ocean Beach. This was the case in 1999, and this sentiment has been present in the work of Friends of Ocean Beach and the Ocean Beach Task Force as well as every other public participation process ever convened regarding management of the beach. As far as the record stands, the only organization to ever support throwing trash and junk onto the beach is DPW.
Further, genuine long-term planning and strategic-retreat analysis are clearly needed and necessary. Yet despite requests from the Board of Supervisors and the Coastal Commission, DPW has steadfastly refused to engage in future planning. Based upon the most reliable scientific analysis available, seas are expected to rise approximately 4.5 feet over the next 80 years, a dramatic increase over the 9-inch rise over the past century. If such forecasts prove to be accurate, much of the beach and oceanside development in San Francisco will be drowned, creating an urgent need for adaptive and resilient planning now.
One view of the situation at Ocean Beach is that if future armoring is needed south of Sloat, it should be limited to the Oceanside water-treatment facility, meaning that DPW should plan now to move beach amenities, sewage connector pipes, and the roadway. None of it needs to happen tomorrow. It could be planned in phases over many decades. And future armoring of the water-treatment facility should coincide with tidal reconnection of the ocean with the northern portion of Lake Merced, to provide a safety relief valve wherein ocean energy can be directed into part of Lake Merced, either by pipeline or an open ocean inlet.
For those who care about the future of Ocean Beach, now is the time to join the Coastal Commission in rebuking DPW and its insistence on continuing to dump debris in a national park. For without your voice, and the continued watchdog efforts and legal fines and penalties, DPW is unlikely to change course in future years.
Mark Massara is a longtime Ocean Beach resident and an environmental lawyer specializing in coastal resource protection.
Publisher’s Note: This opinion article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Ocean Beach Bulletin. It represents the opinion of its author, who is responsible for the veracity of statements made in it. The Ocean Beach Bulletin accepts submissions of opinion articles, but does not guarantee publication. For more information, please email Tom Prete.