While Bill McLaughlin and other San Francisco surfers always enjoy the powerful winter waves near Ocean Beach’s southern end, the beach has changed over the years. In the 1990s, the area had landscaping, parking lots and other amenities installed by The City during construction for the new Oceanside Treatment Plant. Today, most of the renovations are gone and debris clutters the beach.
Through the years, officials have relied mostly on short-term solutions, such as armoring development with rocks, concrete and even gravestones from the old Laurel Hill cemetery. Yet, again and again, powerful storms batter Ocean Beach’s bluffs and wash much of The City’s work away.
“Ocean Beach is very dynamic,” McLaughlin, a volunteer with the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, told me. “Its shoreline changes in an unpredictable fashion because it gets a lot of energy from the waves.”
Thankfully, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) has worked with city, state and federal agencies in developing a long-term plan that is finally getting closer to implementation. It will provide greater protection for the beach and city infrastructure, and help San Francisco weather continued erosion and climate change.
“All the agencies – city, state and federal – are sitting down monthly,” Benjamin Grant a project leader with the nonprofit SPUR said. “They’re thinking about climate change and the sequence of projects and getting them all funded.”
When San Francisco officials initially made the decision to build a new sewage system on Ocean Beach in the 1970s they knew the area was susceptible to erosion. Residents and state and federal officials voiced strong concerns about the proposal. The then, newly-formed California Coastal Commission even rejected the initial permit for the plant. But San Francisco officials felt pressure to improve coastal water quality and negotiated a compromise to build an improved sewer system near the beach anyway.
In this way, San Francisco is like other communities in North Carolina and Texas, which feel compelled to permit housing and farms in areas repeatedly flooded by hurricanes and storms. Communities must acknowledge and respond to dangers climate change and limited landscapes pose to lives and livelihoods.
According to California’s Climate Change Assessment released in August, over six feet of sea level rise is inevitable over the next several centuries. Severe erosion on Ocean Beach may also become more acute as climate change makes storms more frequent and powerful.
These realities put pressure on city infrastructure, including the Lake Merced Tunnel, a 14-foot-wide wastewater pipe that runs beneath the Great Highway. Like the road itself, the tunnel is vulnerable and could severely contaminate coastal waters unless its protected soon.
The Surfrider Foundation has called for managed retreat, which would relocate structures landward. This approach would give the beach room to change and help sand replenishment efforts be more successful.
“We need to get this right,” McLaughlin told me. “We are fighting to see everyone who wants to go to the beach, actually finds a beach – not just a concrete seawall or pile of rip rap.”
The SPUR Ocean Beach Management Plan published in 2012 proposes a hybrid approach of managed retreat, sand replenishment and protecting infrastructure in place.
Some of these recommendations are going through planning, design and environmental review and are moving toward implementation. The City anticipates narrowing the Great Highway, extending a nature trail, continuing to add sand to the beach and installing underground protection between the Lake Merced Tunnel and the Pacific Ocean.
“The good news is that we have real projects that we’re planning with real timelines and dedicated budgets,” Anna Roche at the SFPUC told me. “We’ve made more progress in the past five years, than in the previous 15.”
In the coming months, agencies will present proposed improvements to the public. Surfers, like McLaughlin, and all San Franciscans can participate. California’s coast may change, but it will always be a favorite spot on sunny, warm October days and beyond.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.