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Got Sand? A Brief History of Sand Projects in Imperial Beach

Federal beach dredge and fill replenishment projects in Imperial Beach have largely failed to protect our coastline.

Sometime this week the scows DS5, Harold M and Clarence D and tugs Katha C and Killeen will transport barges filled with of sediment dredged up from the Ballast Point Coast Guard Station in San Diego Bay by the vessel DB Palomar.

Rather than dump the dredge spoils that contain cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at an existing dump site off Point Loma, the toxic sediment will be placed just offshore from Imperial Beach Boulevard in Imperial Beach. The placement of this toxic material will be carried out with the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the city of Imperial Beach.

The history of Imperial Beach is rife with a parade of badly executed “beach replenishment” projects that have failed to actually do much to protect our coastline. The problem of our receding shoreline is the result of the combination of sea level rise, the construction of the Rodriguez Dam and the armoring of our coast.

Here is a brief history of the mostly unsuccessful and fatally flawed sand projects carried out by federal agencies at the urging of the city of Imperial Beach. Only one agency, SANDAG, has been able to carry out a successful beach project—primarily due to its commitment to using clean, large-grain sand for its projects.

1976-77: The most toxic areas of South San Diego Bay are dredged and the spoils are dumped on Imperial Beach, killing benthic life (e.g., sand crabs) for more than a decade. Local surfers still tell stories about the skin rashes they received from contact with the filthy sediment.

1977-84: The Army Corps of Engineers attempts to build a mile-long breakwater in Imperial Beach. The fledgling Surfrider Foundation and local surfer Jim Knox stop the project at the last minute. The breakwater would have forever destroyed surfing and wave action in most of Imperial Beach.

2001: SANDAG carries out a project with clean sand, which helps to create great sandbars for surfing and clearly increases the size of our beach.

2004: Army Corps dredges area near the Bay Bridge. Barges then dump toxic sediment in the surf zone including thousands of rocks and pieces of garbage, dangerous rebar and metal onto the beach and in the surf zone. Surfers call the dump area "Toxics." One child is almost impaled by a piece of rebar that is hidden in the surf zone. The city initially denies that the garbage and rocks are from the project. No measurable benefit to beach.

2007: Army Corps permits the dredging of a toxic hot spot in San Diego Bay’s Shelter Island. Dredge spoils are dumped with no notice to Imperial Beach residents. Barge is initially turned away by Imperial Beach lifeguards. The barge subsequently works in the middle of the night to avoid public scrutiny. No measurable benefit to beach.

2009: Starting in 2000, Army Corps and the city of Imperial Beach plan a $75 million long-term project involving dredging an area near the border sewage outfall pipe that was used as a World War I gunnery and bombing area. WiLDCOAST, Imperial Beach surfers, the Surfrider Foundation, Senator Tom Coburn and the Obama White House kill the project that the city of Imperial Beach spent more than $250,000 lobbying for.

2010: SANDAG once again proposes "best practices" sand project to be carried out in 2012 involving clean large grain sand. The agency works extensively with local surfers and stakeholders to plan the project.

Rather than focus on a coastal zone management plan that proactively seeks to enhance our coastline by addressing sea level rise, ocean pollution and beach management, unfortunately the city of Imperial Beach continues to seek the placement of any type of “sand” on our beach, regardless of the potential threats to our children.

It will be important for the community to monitor the current project to identify any impacts and threats to public safety. In a communication on Tuesday with the EPA, I wrote that, “Unfortunately during all of the San Diego Bay projects in which dirty and toxic sediment is dumped on our beach—federal agencies have either not informed local agencies at all, and involved almost minimal notification or no stakeholder involvement at all. These are examples of the worst type of coastal zone management practices.”

People go to the beach to swim in clean water.  The city of Imperial Beach should focus on reducing ocean pollution—the main deterrent to tourism—rather than  placing toxic sediment on our beaches in a misguided attempt to promote economic development.

 See you in the water.

 Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.

Jeff Knox February 16, 2011 at 10:06 PM
Thank you, Serge for a clear and accurate portrayal of sand replenishment projects in IB. Imperial Beach officials should ask themselves why such questionable spoils always seem to end up in IB and not Del Mar, Encinitas, or other "high-end" areas just as in need of replenishment. They should also ask why the ACE changed the borrow site at the last minute, leaving us holding the proverbial bag. Was this a case of bait and switch? I urge our elected official to immediately stop this sand from being dumped here and to insist on truly clean, proper grain sized spoils. I'm sure the cities of Del Mar and Encinitas would do the same. Our health, the health of our children, and the viability of our beach are at stake
Serge Dedina February 17, 2011 at 01:47 AM
Thanks Jeff. The barges arrived today--it will be important to monitor the site. We are discussing this issue with the EPA and other environmental organizations in San Diego to make sure this practice ends. It is wrong to have our lovely city and beach be the location for dumping the most toxic dredge spoils in San Diego Bay.

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