Dangerous sea levels and wave runup have continuously threatened San Diego’s coastlines, and this winter, experts say El Niño conditions are the culprit.
High tides and surf have been stripping coastal habitats for decades — pulling sand, rocks and stones into the ocean and destroying natural water barriers, according to the California Coastal Commission.
Urban runoff and pollution have also plagued the seawater. Heavy storms have given rise to high levels of bacteria that often exceed the Department of Environmental Health’s water quality standards.
Mission Beach, Mission Bay and the cities of Del Mar and Encinitas have been particularly affected by El Niño complications, leading San Diego regional officials to issue frequent public advisories for high tides and poor seawater quality.
Bacteria plagues Mission Beach
Masaki Ansley, 23, and Mick Correri, 23, have been surfing South Mission Jetty every morning for 10 years.
After heavy rainstorms, urban runoff and pollution pour into the seawater, and Ansley and Correri have counted numerous times when they’ve become seriously ill after a storm.
“I can remember one day after a storm last December that was especially gross,” Ansley said. “The water was murky and green, and yellow foam was coming off the top of the waves. I paddled out and inhaled some foam and threw up in the water. I got sick for three weeks. It was all in my lungs and I ran a terrible fever.”
Correri said this winter season has been particularly bad.
“Debris and trash are almost too common in the water,” Correri said. “At one point, I was getting sick every other week and going to the emergency department all of the time. It makes you rethink how important certain hobbies are to you.”
South Mission Jetty was once home to small beach coves, but in the last five years, Correri said, several of them have disappeared completely.
“There’s this one break where there used to be a road down to the beach, but there isn’t a beach anymore,” Correri said. “(Water) just crashes against the cliffs. You used to be able to see the sand at high tide, but now, even during low tide, you can’t see the sand anymore.”
Heavy rainfall has also put the Mission Bay Aquatic Center on frequent mandatory, 72-hour holds until the bay water is safe enough for members to enter.
“It puts a damper on the educational quality of this facility as well as people’s general happiness with our courses,” Johnny Fay, head of surfing program at the Aquatic Center, said. “Especially during this El Niño season, there’s a fear of nasty ear or eye infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, and things like that.”
Cardiff’s coastline is in recession
The city of Encinitas developed a shoreline program to combat coastal erosion exacerbated by El Niño, in hopes of restoring its deeply affected beaches.
Kathy Weldon, shoreline program manager, says the city’s main goal has always been to protect the coast’s natural habitats by restoring shorelines, loss of elevation and loss of beach area — particularly in Cardiff by the Sea.
Its current project, the Living Shoreline Conceptual Plan, aims to move more than 30,000 cubic yards of sand from the San Elijo Lagoon to a vulnerable, half-mile stretch along Highway 101.
This waterfront, between Cardiff State Beach and Encinitas’ historic Restaurant Row, has minimal sand left, and Weldon is concerned for the effect it will have on the beach and the highway.
“(The project) is focused on sea level rise and how to prevent it before something worse happens,” Weldon said. “It’s kind of a hybrid of approach with multiple benefits. So we want to create habitat for the birds and a habitat along the beach, and at the same time protect Highway 101.”
The sand will be used to create artificial dunes that can catch excess sea water, preventing El Niño-style “king tides” from destroying water barriers and flooding the highway, program reports state.
Sean Lee, coastal programs intern and a University of California, San Diego student, has been collecting data from Cardiff State Beach and Moonlight Beach in Encinitas — both are “disappearing beaches” he said the city’s trying to learn more about.
Lee uses a data collection device called a MoBERM (Mobile Beach Erosion Monitoring) that includes a small piece of technology known as a Spectra Precision. He’s been using this tool once a month since October, 2015.
As Lee pulls the MoBERM across the sand, the Spectra Precision collects GPS data points; one GPS point is recorded every half second. This determines X, Y and Z coordinates that can be used to plot an elevation profile and yield the exact width of a given beach.
“So right now we’re trying to look at specifically how the area of the beach has been changing, how the volume of the beach is changing, how much sand is being lost or gained,” Lee said.
After three months of data from this year’s El Niño season, coastal erosion has undoubtedly sparked high rates of sediment movement. But as the season ends, Lee said coastlines have already begun to improve.
“We found that the beaches experience significantly (less) erosion during the months where there were little storm events,” Lee said. “So during the month of February for example, the beach was able to recover…and retrieve the sand that it lost in the past months.”
Del Mar restaurants build barriers
Perry Ustick, general manager of Jake’s Del Mar, remembers a winter day in 1981 when water slammed into the restaurant, breaking glass and flooding the dining room with sand and seawater. The restaurant was brand new, and the storm was one of many to precede the El Niño of 1982-83.
Since then, the beach has lost more than 4 feet of sand and the restaurant has buried large boulders into its outer landscape for protection. The configuration creates a sturdy, reliable safeguard when hit by the force of waves.
This season, Ustick fears the space has grown smaller between the restaurant, the rocks and the waves. High surf has come close enough to hit a small strip of patio in front Jake’s, forcibly moving boulders yards away from dining patrons.
“What we have, I am worried, because we have a lot of days where there’s literally no beach,” Ustick said. “I actually saw a family got pinned against the rocks from the surf coming up right out front. I ran down there to try and help and the lifeguard closed the beach for everybody that day.”
Next door at Poseidon Restaurant, large waves flooded their outdoor patio so regularly that they built a 40-foot seawall to protect guests and the building from further damage.
“We’re lucky that we’re set back enough from where we have our protective boulders set up to protect us,” Ustick said. “But out here, the disappearing sand area has also made the beach less popular, which has affected our business.”
Youth have a role in conservation
As this year’s storm season comes to a close, high rates of coastal erosion have left San Diego’s shorelines bare of sand and natural barriers — a pattern that is likely to continue indefinitely, regional reports say.
As more data develops on the issues, researchers are gaining a better understanding of how environmental problems can change natural landscapes over longer intervals, Lee said. He hopes this will better educate the general public.
Johnny Fay, of the Mission Bay Aquatic Center, believes it’s in the hands of current and future generations to be mindful of water quality and coastal erosion issues and our role as pollutant producers and managers.
“Luckily there is so much hope, potential and wisdom around the young people of today,” Fay said. “They’ve grown up in a culture that has been very concerned about the environment, and its bright young people who will be leading our way into the future.”