Mayor Jim Janney called a five-minute recess and walked out of council chambers Wednesday after a speaker called for new Imperial Beach leadership.
Such were the emotions concerning what SANDAG and the city call ponding and residents have started to call a lake or lagoon.
However it’s named, the issue of sea water that sits in sand brought to Imperial Beach last fall brought a large, diverse group of local residents to a City Council meeting to discuss the matter.
Among concerns raised at the meeting were long term damage to beachfront homes, the lack of a long-term plan to solve the problem and safety issues for surfers, swimmers and beachgoers.
In an unexpected twist, environmentalists defended SANDAG as a transparent organization doing its best to solve the problem.
Among 15 people who spoke during the public comment period, some residents said they came to the meeting through flooded parking garages.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the design is flawed, and needs immediate and drastic attention before we get a sink hole and damage to our condo foundation,” said Alice Dela Torre, whose garage had about 2 inches of standing water Wednesday. “Trenching is just a Band-Aid. It’s not the answer to the design flow.”
The council was asked to approve an agreement that would pay the city to mobilize bulldozers after high-tide events to dig trenches and allow pooling water to flow back to the ocean.
The agreement, which was unanimously approved by the City Council, will last until March, until $30,000 is spent or if SANDAG decides the trenches aren’t working.
Council also asked SANDAG to return next month for a progress report.
Bulldozers were back on the beach Thursday after a 5.3-foot high tide caused water to pool. The gear may return this weekend. Extreme high tides are expected to return the second week of February.
Linda Cordero works with a company that bought a condo on Seacoast Drive a month before sand replenishment started. She came to the meeting to express concern for the company’s investment and a 97-year-old tenant.
“She came down, my tenant did, in her little Hoveround to leave the house through the garage and she couldn’t because of the water,” Cordero said. “If she had to leave in an emergency, she can’t climb up and down the stairs. She has to get out through the garage. And that’s unacceptable.”
Residents’ concerns weren’t taken seriously until media coverage compelled reaction, said Miriam Iosupovici. It’s not a small irritation, but a serious, ongoing problem with possible future ramifications, she said.
“We’re asked to trust them while our garage is impassable, and it’s really upsetting,” she said. “As I left to come here today, the garage was flooded and there have been times when I park my car out on the street cause I literally didn’t want to go through 5 or 6 inches of water. You have to see it possibly to believe how serious it is.”
Since his home is on Seacoast Drive south of Imperial Beach Boulevard, Councilman Ed Spriggs was recused and did not vote due to a potential conflict of interest.
Instead he spoke as a citizen during the public comment period.
SANDAG has been proactive in trying to correct the problem, but all efforts thus far have failed, Spriggs said. Water has caused cracks to form in the foundation and has reached the elevator shaft and rebar that lines the garage, he said.
“We can’t know right now how serious [damage is] going to be, but we know there have to be consequences because saltwater and rebar don’t mix very well in terms of corrosion and leaking of the structures,” he said.
Alan Alcorn, the project’s designer, gave a presentation on the progress and troubles of sand replenishment since work was completed last October.
Addressing a question from Councilwoman Lorie Bragg, Alcorn said trenches must be dug after a high-tide event because digging before high tide would allow water to intrude east.
“Cutting it in advance is actually going to make the situation worse,” Alcorn said.
Bulldozers can be mobilized within a day to dig trenches and drain pooled water within an hour, but the trench fills in with sand within a day and a half and each trip costs about $5,000.
Other options have not yet been considered, said SANDAG Project Manager Shelby Tucker.
If he could go back and make any corrections to the project’s design, there isn’t much he would change, Alcorn said.
“At the moment, there’s nothing that we would have done differently, even knowing that condition, with the possible exception of not placing the sand as far south,” Alcorn said.
“Last time we didn’t place the sand as far as south so that may have contributed something to this.”
SANDAG gave a good presentation, said Seacoast Drive resident John Ireland. He can’t refute any of the claims that were made, but asked: “Do we judge their performance or do we judge their pictures and their plans? And their performance has been a disaster.”
The sand should have been placed on the beach at a natural grade as it was during SANDAG’s 2001 Regional Beach Sand Project, Ireland said.
“I feel like what we’ve got to do is solve the problem and go nature’s way and quit this idea of a level beach and create a sloped beach like its always been since I’ve been 8 years old,” he said.
The beach can’t just be returned to its natural grade, Alcorn said.
“What we found is because of the tides this time of year that any grading activities that would be done to try to push that entire beach fill would be rebuilt within a very short period of time within days we would never be able to keep up with that grading because of the climate now,” he said.
Waves action has moved sand several hundred feet north and roughly 1,000 feet south since the project concluded. Alcorn expects the beach to be back to a natural grade by summer.
Despite complaints about damage from residents, no damage claims have been filed with SANDAG, Tucker said.
Seacoast Drive residents were sent a letter by SANDAG earlier this week. [See attached PDF.]
Tom Cook, a UC San Diego Marine Physical Laboratory analyst working with Surfrider, defended the regional planning agency.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I believe SANDAG has acted to the best of their ability on this,” Cook said, adding that years were spent preparing for the project. “I’m usually on the other side of the coin throwing arrows at SANDAG.”
Cook was not without criticism. Based on data collected from a camera SANDAG has on the pier to monitor sand replenishment’s impact to surfing and recreation, he said the project has had an adverse impact on beach attendance.
The new sand extends into the surf zone where waves break, Cook said. Preliminary Surfrider data shows the number of surfers in IB waters have seen a sharp decline since the project finished last fall.
Several other speakers expressed concern for their children’s safety and others, including Matthew Lord, Dan Murhpy and Jeff Knox.
Serge Dedina, Executive Director of the conservation group WiLDCOAST, said SANDAG deserves some credit. Maybe it’s different for homeowners, but the planning agency has been responsive to the surfing and environmental community, he said.
“I work with a lot of different agencies and probably the most responsive, collaborative and transparent agency I’ve ever worked with is SANDAG,” Dedina said. “If this was the Army Corps of Engineers, they would be holed up in their bunker in Washington and we would never have seen them.”
Sand replenishment has raised safety concerns for surfers that need to be addressed, Dedina said, but an “ecological catastrophe” could be brewing if the sand begins to impede the flow of the Tijuana River.
“We need to figure out what’s going to happen if that happens,” he said, adding that the city needs to speak with managers of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve to come up with a plan.
Sand may also be interfering with reefs near the mouth of the river.
“The waves are breaking 200 or 300 yards north of where they normally used to so that’s an indication that sand is covering the reef that it’s breaking different,” Dedina said.
Dedina recommended that the MOU be expanded to evaluate the impact to surfing, beach safety and ecological resources.
He joined four other public speakers who urged the city to bring back its Tideland Advisory Committee, but was alone in suggesting that the sand replenishment issue is a reflection of poor city leadership.
“You spend so much time restricting public comment that you don’t see the full picture,” Dedina told Mayor Janney. “We’d like to have a public workshop so we can speak openly without having someone tell us our time is up. Because we need new leadership that understands the importance of having stakeholder and public involvement.”
His comments and refusal to stop speaking when his allotted time was up prompted the meeting to come to a temporary halt. Before Dedina could finish a sentence about needing new leadership, Janney called the five-minute recess.
Correction: The original version of this article inaccurately stated the MOU was for up to $20,000 in work, however the agreement is up to $30,000.