Sand mining in SF Bay dealt blow by state appeals court

SF Baykeeper argues that sand mining contributes to erosion at Ocean Beach. (Juan Pardo/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

A California appeals court has ruled that sand in the San Francisco Bay must be considered a public trust resource, potentially challenging the practice of mining for sand in the Bay that’s in turn used in construction projects.

Wednesday’s ruling in the lawsuit between San Francisco Baykeeper and the California State Lands Commission in the California 1st District Court of Appeal is considered a major victory by environmental advocates who have argued sand mining contributes to erosion at Ocean Beach and threatens the Bay’s ecosystem.

The State Lands Commission, the California agency that oversees sand mining, had been sued by SF Baykeeper in 2012 after new leases were approved for private companies to mine for sand in the Bay. A San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled against SF Baykeeper last year, but the environmental group subsequently appealed that decision.

The appeals court, in its ruling Wednesday, wrote that the State Lands Commission failed to consider whether sand mining leases are “a proper use of public trust property,” though the court also determined that the mining project challenged in the lawsuit did comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

“[This is] a huge decision for the Bay, but it’s also got great implications for the rest of the country,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of SF Baykeeper. “It really helps protect public access to beaches [and] all kinds of resources that are in waterways across the country.”

Sheri Pemberton, chief external affairs and legislative liaison for the State Lands Commission, said the agency is reviewing the court’s decision and declined to comment on the ruling.

In a court filing, the State Lands Commission wrote that it spent nearly six years reviewing the potential environmental impacts before approving the sand mining project, and determined it will not further erode coastal beaches or significantly affect wildlife.

The Lands Commission further stated that if the leases were not approved to mine for sand in the Bay, sand would have had to be transported from quarries as far north as Canada, leading to possibly greater environmental consequences.

Sand mining is conducted using a tugboat to position and maneuver a barge over a mining site. The barge is filled using a hydraulic suction dredge. After loading the sand the tugboat takes the barge to an offloading facility.

SF Baykeeper argues beaches outside the Golden Gate Bridge, like Ocean Beach, are eroding in part because the less than 500,000 cubic yards of sand already removed each year exceeds the amount of sediment that flows from upstream sources in the Delta and Sierra mountains.

Allowing more than 2 million cubic yards of sand, the amount approved by the State Lands Commission in 2012, will cause further erosion that will threaten the Great Highway, possibly cause a major city sewer line to rupture, and wash away habitats for shorebirds, according to SF Baykeeper.

It was not immediately known whether Wednesday’s ruling would impact the sand mining leases approved in 2012.

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