Harbor District takes lead on Surfer’s Beach: Dredging project south of Pillar Point Harbor remains stalled, local agency seeks quicker action

After more than 50 years of Surfer’s Beach slowly eroding away, the San Mateo County Harbor District has opted to take charge of efforts to replenish sand and deter further damage caused by the construction of Pillar Point Harbor.

The district’s Board of Commissioners unanimously voted last week to take the local lead agency status of a pilot project to replenish sand at the popular site immediately south of the outer harbor jetty, which was constructed in the late 1950s and has slowly led to the degradation of the beach.

As the lead agency, the district could potentially steer planning, review and permitting for replenishing the beach that protects Highway 1. Ideally, the district and those who frequent the beach would like the harbor to be dredged and material used to replenish sand that also serves as a deterrent to erosion.

However, various entities have a significant stake in such a project and will require the special district to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Caltrans, county officials and the city of Half Moon Bay.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed the jetty used to protect boats in the harbor but is contributing to the loss of sand and erosion at the beach, has been conducting a study to determine whether it has an interest in such a project.

“This was an opportunity to acknowledge that we’re serious about doing something. We’re still not sure what to do because, yes, we’re waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with some solutions, but we’re saying as soon as they get it together, we’re ready,” said Commissioner Sabrina Brennan.

The multi-year study that’s cost hundreds of thousands of dollars is nearing completion this fall as officials consider the economics and environmental impacts of the project, said Tom Kendall, chief of planning branch for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers San Francisco District.

“We don’t have a silver bullet yet,” Kendall said. “In essence, we’re looking at a mitigation response. But we’re required to demonstrate the benefits from whatever investment we make at this point going forward — is it going to be generating more benefits than it is cost? It’s kind of the cold hard reality, just because there’s an impact, doesn’t mean the feds are going to come forward and fix it.”

Such a project will require various state and federal permits as well as approval from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary — which prohibits artificial movement of sediment in sanctuary waters, according to the district.

Harbor Commissioners Nicole David and Pietro Parravano, who make up the district’s Beach Replenishment Committee, have begun to study various options that could include following the Coastal Regional Sediment Management Plan for the Santa Cruz Littoral Cell. A littoral cell is a geographical portion of the coast where a complete cycle of sedimentation is located. The plan covers a 75-mile strip of coast that includes Pillar Point and is a collaborative effort between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local jurisdictions and stakeholders.

Kendall said the corps is thrilled to be working with the sanctuary and is considering how to adhere to environmental policies that prohibit dredged material from being deposited in marine habitat. Per sanctuary rules that allow the deposit of dry sand in marine habitat, one possibility would be to start taking dry sand from the inner harbor to replenish Surfer’s Beach above the high-tide line. Eventually, once more land is built up, officials could begin using dredged wet material from the harbor to fill the dry area at Surfer’s Beach, Kendall said.

Dredging the harbor would also benefit boaters, some of whom cannot use certain shallow areas caused by sand building up over time, Brennan said.

“We’ve got boats that are hitting bottom and we’ve got areas that are too shallow to even think about taking a boat. And as storms come through and sand is moved, things change over time. So if you’re not maintaining your harbor, then the areas that boats can access become smaller and smaller,” Brennan said.

Sand replenishment must be coordinated with other projects, such as those currently being undertaken by Caltrans, Half Moon Bay and county officials. Efforts to protect Highway 1 and enhance the well-used surf break are underway as about 100 to 150 feet of the seawall, or riprap made of boulders, is being repaired and a staircase to the beach installed.

Brennan said these other agencies have an interest in seeing the district and corps project along.

“It’s just been so long. The community is really, really ready for it and the beach is pretty much nonexistent now throughout a lot of the year because the erosion’s gotten so bad. And it will help with what the county is doing to repair the riprap,” Brennan said. “Without the sand in place, [the seawall] is going to have a shorter life span. So if we move material over there, it’ll help with their project as well.”

Kendall noted the riprap protects Highway 1 and the sand protects the riprap, which makes protecting the road a secondhand benefit. While the main advantage would be recreational, for which there is value associated, if the study proved the project would directly serve Highway 1, that would be considered a more pronounced benefit, Kendall said.

Locals have long waited on the corps, but navigating the lengthy permitting processes, studies and coordinating with the various agencies will be a task the Harbor District is equipped to take on, said Tom Mattusch, president of the Harbor District Board of Commissioners.

“The Army Corps has been a serious holdup in the past. Getting all the different permitting agencies together has been difficult, but it’s something the Harbor District has wanted for a very long time. So it’s very important that there be a lead agency,” Mattusch said. “When you have one lead agency like the Harbor District, it’s easier to coordinate plans with different groups and actually accomplish something. That’s what’s been missing in the past as many people talked about it but there wasn’t a central clearing group to put a plan in place.”

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