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Infusion of sand worries surfers

February 18 2007 | Coastal Preservation,
by Chad Nelsen



K.C. ALFRED / Union-Tribune
Surfers such as David Thomas (left) and Serge Dedina are concerned that Imperial Beach's sand replenishment project could drastically alter waves and affect marine life. The city says no one has been excluded from commenting on the project.

Some fear dredging will alter Tijuana Sloughs

By Janine Zúñiga
STAFF WRITER

February 18, 2007

Local surfers are fighting Imperial Beach's sand replenishment project, saying the replacement sand may contain contaminants and affect a legendary surf spot known as the Tijuana Sloughs.

The project involves dredging tons of offshore sand and depositing it onto the city's shore. Over the years, heavy storms have washed away the city's beach. During the winter months, Imperial Beach is without sand up to most property lines. Cobblestones cover much of the beach along the southern edge of Seacoast Drive.
Sand acts as a buffer against heavy storms, protecting land and property. The city estimates it loses about 6 feet of beach a year to storm damage and erosion.

“The beach is a very fundamental recreation area and an economic generator for the city,” City Manager Gary Brown said. “It's not just a resource for us. For more and more people living out east in Chula Vista, we're the local beach.”

The sand project is awaiting authorization through the federal Water Resources Development Act. Once that is approved, the city can lobby for federal construction funds.

Surfers speak up

Surfers said they were caught off guard in August when city officials certified an environmental review of the project.
“There was no effort made to engage the surfing world,” said longtime surfer Serge Dedina. “We want more information on the project, and we want to be involved.”

The surfers are following the lead of their Hawaiian and East Coast counterparts, who have become increasingly involved in municipal sand projects. For years, Eastern states from Florida to New Jersey have been getting millions of dollars in federal funding for sand replenishment projects. Surfers there said they wanted to make sure the projects didn't disrupt waves or harm the shoreline and marine life.

In Imperial Beach, surfers say they have cause to worry.

Six years ago, the San Diego Association of Governments put 120,000 cubic yards of sand on the Imperial Beach shore as part of a larger coastal replenishment effort. Then, in early 2005, the city received about 250,000 cubic yards of sand dredged from San Diego Bay.

David Thomas, a local surfer and coastal engineer, said that in addition to the sand, the city got steel rods and mystery chunks of hardened sand and shells washing up onshore.

The water was murky and silt-filled for months, Thomas said, and he saw it turn surfboards black.

Locals say the project temporarily wiped out regular surfing spots, although the dumped sand did create a reef northwest of the pier. Surfers call the spot “Toxics.”

Contamination worries

The Silver Strand Shoreline Renourishment Project, the largest planned along the West Coast, will move an initial 1.6 million cubic yards of sand from the coastal floor to the Imperial Beach shore. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will do the work, will replenish the sand every 10 years for 50 years.
Dredged sand will partly replenish what has been lost with the damming of the Tijuana River. The river used to carry sediment from the nearby hills through the valley and down to the shore. Without the sediment reaching the shore, a dramatic imbalance has caused the shoreline to erode.

Imperial Beach officials say no one has been excluded from commenting on the sand project. Meetings have been legally publicized, they said.

Tim Townsley, who owns TNT Surfboards, recently formed the Imperial Beach Waterman's Committee. The group – composed of biologists, coastal engineers and business owners – plans to meet regularly with city officials to discuss surfing issues, such as the sand project and water quality, as well as concerns such as redevelopment and public art.

The committee's main issue with the upcoming project is where the sand will come from. Project coordinators have identified two sites, one near the northern edge of the city and the other near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Dedina said sand from the border area likely contains contaminants because it is between the mouth of the Tijuana River, where sewage-contaminated water routinely enters and pollutes the ocean, and a pipe that dumps partially treated sewage into the sea. The Corps of Engineers and city officials prefer that site, however, because the northern site has too many cobblestones.

Greg Wade, Imperial Beach's community development director, said the city relied on a Corps of Engineers study conducted from 1997 to 2002 that shows no contamination hazards or problems with the grain size at the border site.

Surfers are objecting to that site for another reason – it may significantly alter the Tijuana Sloughs, a surf spot known around the world. Surfers warn that taking sand from anywhere near the Sloughs could reduce the size of the waves.

Search for sand, funding

Meanwhile, officials are trying to secure funding for the sand project, which the Corps of Engineers estimates will cost about $60 million.
It cost $1.75 million to evaluate the erosion and recommend a solution. Initial construction is expected to cost $13.7 million, which includes $1.5 million in preconstruction, engineering and design work. The city's share for initial construction costs is 36 percent, or $4.8 million.

Monitoring and replenishing the sand for 50 years will cost approximately $40 million. The federal government is expected to cover half of those costs. The city is attempting to get grants to cover the other half.

Thomas, the local surfer, said the city and the Corps of Engineers try to keep costs as low as possible when choosing sand sites. He said dredging sand at the northern location is less desirable and may be too costly because of the cobblestones. He fears that a decision has been made and it may be too late.

City Manager Brown said the final decision on the sand site has not been made.

“The key is first to nail down the funding, then explore the positives and negatives of switching sites,” he said.

Townsley, the local surf shop owner, said everyone should have a say in what happens at the beach.

“We all live here because we all want to be here,” Townsley said. “We're voters. Keep us in mind.”

Janine Zuniga: (619) 498-6636; janine.zuniga@uniontrib.com

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