Harbor pushes on with ramp dredging

Some fear project could erode long-term Surfer’s Beach solution

The San Mateo County Harbor Commission last week moved forward with emergency plans to dredge a section of Pillar Point Harbor and move a small mountain of sand elsewhere within the harbor. But the plan has alarmed some observers who were hoping that sand could reinforce Surfer’s Beach and provide a barrier against erosion and smoother break for surfers.

Saying the matter was urgent, harbor officials met on Christmas Eve in South San Francisco and approved a bid for the dredging project. Only three harbor commissioners attended the special holiday meeting. They unanimously approved the project. No members of the public were in attendance.

The meeting was arranged with haste in mind, said General Manager Peter Grenell. Years of sediment buildup at Pillar Point Harbor have closed off all but one of the three launch ramps. He explained that the harbor needed to clear out more than 5,000 cubic yards of sand before the start of salmon season in April. Waiting any longer would also mean the district would first need to perform a survey for eelgrass, an aquatic plant that can be eradicated by dredging.

“The next regular Harbor Commission meeting is Jan. 16, so we said we can’t wait that long,” Grenell said. “If you’ve ever seen the line of pickups and boat trailers here at salmon season, you know there’s a lot of people who will use those launch ramps.”

But former Harbor Commission candidate Neil Merillees remained skeptical. He described it as “sneaky” for the district to schedule a meeting affecting only the Coastside on a holiday over the hill.

“I wonder what the hurry is all about … Why do they need to do it now?” he said. “I don’t believe the sand is for the harbor to do whatever the harbor wants to do with it.”

Few observers would disagree that Pillar Point Harbor has a problem with its sand buildup. The southern portion of the harbor near the boat ramp has experienced a steadily growing beach from the sediment carried out at the mouth of Deer Creek.

Meanwhile, the beach immediately on the other side of the breakwater has the opposite problem — a constant barrage of waves has decimated the shore. While the breakwater provides calm conditions within the harbor, it also magnifies the force of waves hitting Surfer’s Beach down to Miramar. In the worst years, the ocean can eat away as much as 80 inches from the sea cliffs south of the harbor, according to a 2005 U.S. Geological Survey study.

For some observers, the solution to both problems is obvious: take the sand from the harbor and move it over to the Surfer’s Beach area.

“It’s such a win-win situation for everybody … it’s so obvious, it’s painful,” said Mike Wallace, a Surfrider spokesman and coach of the Half Moon Bay High School surf team. “That sand should really go on the other side of the harbor.”

In a letter to the Harbor District last week, Wallace worried that the erosion was ruining Surfer’s Beach, the spot where his team practices. He described the Harbor District’s plan as “a slap in the face” that ignores a larger coastal problem.

In 2010, surfing advocates and the Harbor Commission cooperated to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the architects of the Pillar Point breakwater — to pay for studying a remedy. Army Corps officials originally indicated their report would be available this month, but they now say it won’t be complete for a few more months.

Army Corps planner John Dingler said the harbor’s decision to dredge early wouldn’t affect any long-term solution being investigated by the report.

“What they’re doing there is completely unconnected,” he said. “It’s really a piddling amount. Five thousand cubic yards isn’t much when you’re talking about a dredging project.”

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