Wanted: Operation Safe Sand

by Carolyn Chase

  he old adage "what goes around comes around" takes on new meaning in the light of recent civic-minded attempts to replenish sand on local beaches. Worried coastal property owners were hoping for a reprieve from predicted El Niño-driven storms expected to pound our already eroding shoreline. Local navy officials needing to dredge and move tons of sand would just as soon help out. But another nice attempt at a win-win solution to fix one environmental problem has run right into another. The project keeps going bad as the Navy discovers live ammunition and other military ammo litter amongst the sand. It seems the military has gotten used to using the ocean as a bit of a dumpsite.

It's doubly tough for local officials who call area beaches "our most precious asset." while at the same time they watch them recede. What they thought was going to be a fine technical fix to a persistent problem is eroding before them, just like the beaches. Problem is, while having a disappeared beach is bad, having a tourist or local stumble upon live ammo, isn't exactly what anyone had in mind. Even the most positive minded public official can see the liability and PR problems with that. But who better to do the work of recovering ordinance that shouldn't be in the marine environment to begin with? Who better than the services who put it there to begin with?

So why is the Navy claiming it is operating under emergency conditions and that it cannot rid the sand of litter of it's own making? Why aren't they mounting Operation Safe Sand? Providing beach sand to local cities was one of the ways in which the Navy enlisted public support for its nuclear carrier homeporting plan, and finding ordinance in the dredged material should come as no surprise to the Navy. The Navy certainly has the expertise in ordinance management somewhere. I cannot believe that the Navy does not have the capability to make good on its promise to deliver the sand. Is this a beach that is out of reach for our Navy?

"We need the sand!" and "Where have the beaches gone?" and is the cry from coastal property owners. Beach movement is natural. Beaches are constantly in motion. The beach you saw last summer is not the same beach that's there today. Billions and billions of grains of sands are removed and added incessantly. While big storm events can remove entire beaches, in a natural coastline, the sand comes back. But the key here is removed and deposited, removed and deposited.

But beach erosion and persistent disappearance is mostly a manmade problem. As we build along the shoreline, walls, jetties, and other projects block the natural movement of sand along the shore. Where some area cliffs and beaches could historically rely on having new sand naturally deposited along the shore, the natural pattern has been so interrupted that as the old sand keeps moving along, the new sand is never redeposited and shoreline erosion whether from beaches or cliffs is increased.

So where is the missing sand? Well, a lot of it is behind upstream dams. A bunch more is being trapped in lagoons by other blockages such as roads and projects built on fill. The rest of it is trapped by manmade coastal blockages such as breakwaters which interfere with the natural movement and deposition of sand along the coast. So sand moving down the coast, hits a breakwater or a wall and then is moved back out to sea instead of moving down the coast to make a "precious beach."

Erosion is nothing new for any coastline. What's new are the blockages combined with the propensity for folks to build close to the edges of coastal bluffs - and for local cities to permit them to do so. This combines with the lack of sand redeposition to lead to some sad outcomes and unpleasant choices.

There can be no happy endings for people whose houses or condos are being undermined by the relentless tides of the sea. And it's a terrible thing that the Navy is unable or unwilling to help due, evidently, to its own past practices. Recently the California Coastal Commission voted to allow eroding sea caves in Solana Beach to be plugged underneath a set of condos above in a desperate attempt to slow the erosion process.

I wish them all well. But first I wish they weren't stupid enough to build there in the first place. I wish the watershed and coastline wasn't so built up that the beaches are kept away. I wish the military had learned not to lose live ammo or litter at sea. I wish they would keep their commitment to being good neighbors and deliver safe sand. And there's another old story - if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.