West Coast
A man stares at the ocean during high tide in Oceanside on Sept. 5, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

CA - Environment Report: The U.S. Government Owes Oceanside a Beach

Tons of sand sit behind the Camp Pendleton military harbor complex while San Diego’s sand-starved cities have to work decades with the Army Corps to nourish their beaches.

Oceanside’s beaches were so wide before the construction of Camp Pendleton military base, beachgoers raced cars along the sandy shore.

Now beachgoers sit perched atop boulder revetments at mid-tide – the thing protecting property from the onslaught of waves.

I recently wrote that the city of Oceanside is about to spend $2.6 million of its own money to save its beaches from disappearing into the Pacific Ocean. But Oceanside – and potentially all of San Diego – would have much more beach if the federal government hadn’t built Camp Pendleton and its harbor in the first place.  

Congressman Mike Levin reiterated that fact in a 2019 letter to the Pentagon: “The cause of the damage and need for measures to mitigate the erosion is unquestioned. The federal government first acknowledged responsibility for the erosion in 1953 and since that, multiple studies reaffirmed that conclusion.”

That’s also the finding of the San Diego Association of Governments – or SANDAG, a regional governmental planning organization – which made it their job to save the county’s dwindling coastlines. Beaches began to shrink regionwide in the 1980s, so SANDAG created a shoreline preservation working group to bring scientists, elected leaders and the public to collaborate on regional projects that grow and protect the coast.

All the sand flowing from the Santa Margarita River eventually stopped by the military’s harbor and jetty “represents one if not the most potentially productive contribution to the coastal sediment budget for the San Diego region,” according to a 2009 SANDAG report.  

Rivers flowing out to sea were one of the largest sources of sand along California’s coast. But most of southern California’s rivers and creeks have been dammed for water storage or impacted by development in some way.  

With no sand flowing from rivers, humans have to engineer beaches. Groups like SANDAG hire a ship to come and suck sand off the deep ocean floor and spew it out onto the beaches in massive amounts every decade or so – a process known as beach nourishment. These dredging vessels, as they’re called, are hard to come by.

Keith Greer, a SANDAG environmental compliance manager, said there is no such dredging vessel dedicated to the West Coast.  

“For the last two regional sand beach projects, they had to actually get a dredge from the East Coast go all the way through the Panama Canal through to San Diego. Very expensive to do that,” Greer said.  

Greer said beach managers have been talking for decades about securing a West Coast-based dredge to regularly replenish beaches along the southern California coast. For now, cities and SANDAG cobble together grant and public dollars to slap down sand every seven to 10 years.  

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