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Taking action against sand erosion at Orange County beaches

June 1, 2021

This Memorial Day weekend, thousands of families and visitors will enjoy our beautiful Orange County beaches. They’ll walk the pier and surf at Huntington Beach, build a bonfire in Newport Beach and enjoy sand volleyball in Seal Beach. More than 50 million people visited Orange County in 2018, bringing in $13 billion in revenue. We live in the most beautiful place in the entire country, and it’s up to us to protect it for generations to come.

That’s why we are working together with local stakeholders to bring awareness to an issue that is affecting our coastline every single day. Sand erosion threatens the safety of people, wildlife and vital infrastructure. For years, we have warned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and federal officials that a lack of action would have a direct and potentially devastating impact on our community.

Every major and minor storm diminishes the protective buffer between the Pacific Ocean and our homes, businesses, and public areas. Some areas have less than 100 feet of sand protecting them from the ocean. In July 2020, strong ocean waves combined with a high tide event in Newport Beach overpowered the coastline and flooded surrounding areas, including neighborhoods and parking lots. Officials had to rescue more than one hundred people and worked fast to limit the destabilizing impacts. That day the beach was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But had 2020 been a normal year, the beach would have been full.

The erosion on Orange County’s beaches can be traced back to federal projects in the 1940s. The federal government widened Anaheim Bay and constructed breakwaters and jetties to service the new military bases that opened to boost military efforts for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The USACE also created flood control projects along three local rivers, and breakwaters were constructed to create and protect the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor. This new construction created narrowed beaches up and down the coastline that were now susceptible to extreme erosion.

The USACE and the federal government, realizing the damage that had been caused, took steps to repair the issue. The project was referred to as the “San Gabriel to Newport Bay Beach Renourishment Project (Surfside-Sunset),” and today it’s the Surfside-Sunset & Newport Beach Replenishment Project (Stage 13). The repair project, done in increments, began with in 1964 and saw eight more project stages through 1990. The project had a continued partnership between the federal government, which provided 67% of the financing, and local communities, which provided the remaining 33%. The local cost share was always covered when it was time for a new project stage.

Then in 1995, after planning Stage 10, the USACE abandoned their responsibilities to Orange County. In 2000, the USACE stated that it was no longer budgeting for any future stages in Orange County. This left the communities on the hook for the high costs and left the coast at a high risk for flooding and major storm damage.

Despite ongoing authorization and approval at the local level, the delay of federal construction funding has now made the next stage long overdue.

This project has a non-federal cost share agreement with local stakeholders including the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the city of Huntington Beach, city of Newport Beach, city of Seal Beach, and the Surfside Stormwater District have already paid their share of the $23.1 million cost associated with funding the project in 2018.

However, the delay of the project will most likely require additional quantities of sand to be deposited to augment the initial proposed 1.5 million cubic yards of sand, which will increase the cost of the project.

Our community cannot afford to wait any longer for these projects to restart. Further delaying action to mitigate the erosion on these beaches will continue to make Orange County more vulnerable to the change in sea level. As shown by the July 2020 Newport event, our communities are at a higher risk, even under normal conditions. If a major earthquake or tsunami were to strike the area, we could see major damage including loss of life.

Shoreline protection is on the front line of the defense. With the threat of sea-level rise and major natural disasters, we need relief immediately. With lack of action by the USACE to fund this critical project, shore erosion will continue to reduce the available habitat for many species who rely on this ecosystem, and risk the lives, property, economy, and infrastructure of Orange County residents.

It is imperative that the Army Corps immediately move forward on this project. This project – created by the federal government to fix a problem it caused – is a no-brainer. The safety, security and health of our communities depend on it.