Grains of Hope: Dredging the Pillar Point Harbor Long Overdue

Grains of Hope: Dredging the Pillar Point Harbor Long Overdue

Erected by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1959 to provide shelter for recreational and commercial boats, the Pillar Point Harbor Jetty in Half Moon Bay (HMB) has not only harbored boats for the past half-century, but inadvertently boatloads of sand as well, which have been choking its southeast corner.

Sand Trap in Pillar Point Harbor

Sand Trap in Pillar Point Harbor

On November 10, a historic meeting took place at the Oceano Hotel in Princeton to find a solution to the scouring of HMB’s precious sand by waves, currents, and refraction off the Jetty.

Signs of abject failure in coastal stewardship are starkly evident to any who can recall the “Turkey Overflow” parking lot on the west side of the highway that was cordoned off and reclaimed by the sea or the miles of sand bars and wide open beaches between the Jetty and Francis Beach to the south.

This area has been starved of the sand accumulating season after season behind the boulders of rip-rap constructed to keep waves out of the harbor. Armoring of the area next to the highway and further down in the residential and commercial zone of Miramar has merely shifted the problem to the south, and in between, amplifying erosion and providing only a temporary fix against the relentless forces of nature.

Aerial photo of Turkey Overflow Lot

Aerial photo of Turkey Overflow Lot

According to a broadly sympathetic preliminary study by the Army Corps, detailed by John Dingler and Tom Kendall, in mathematical terms HMB is a “Logarithmic spiral” or growth curve that appears frequently in nature (think cross-section of a nautilus or the view inside a barrel).

Nautilus Cutaway

Nautilus Cutaway

That natural curve, made famous by 17th-century Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, effectively absorbs the wrath of the sea. In its original pre-Jetty state, HMB eroded at a rate of approximately three inches per year, but after being bisected by the harbor rock pile at the north end, that rate surged to a staggering 80 inches per year. That’s more than a 26-fold increase in the rate of erosion and a stark lesson of the risks attached to messing with the mathematical perfection of Mother Nature, which is seeking to restore balance.

No coincidence then that Bernoulli wrote that the log spiral “may be used as a symbol, either of fortitude and constancy in adversity, or of the human body, which after all its changes, even after death, will be restored to its exact and perfect self” (Wikipedia). Several centuries later, he might recognize a kindred spirit in Brian Overfelt, who for the past two years has made it his personal crusade to liberate the sand bottled up in the harbor and restore it to the beaches. Brian will tell anyone willing to listen that it is a matter of great urgency: ill-conceived engineering created the problem in the first place and new engineering now needs to undo the damage. Corps engineers frankly admitted that had the harbor project been constructed today, a sand outflow would have been integral to its design.

Sand filling the harbor’s southeast corner

Sand filling the harbor’s southeast corner

According to Brian, “There were many voices saying that it’s going to take a long time to get this started, but this process began ten years ago, when Harbor District General Manager Peter Grenell wrote a letter to Senator Olympia Snow asking for help. The need for fast-tracking this situation is a dire one, as every downpour, high tide, and high surf advisory washes away more and more of our coast.”

It was Brian’s lobbying of the Harbor District, the Army Corps, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, among many others, that brought this disparate group to the table. Brian has been surfing the region since 1986 and considers himself an “accidental meteorologist,” having kept close tabs over the years on swells, tides, winds and weather, all of which need to align to create surfable waves. Between those discrete events Brian has observed the longer-term environmental changes, including beach and cliff erosion, and the related deterioration of his beloved surf breaks. Armed with petitions, affidavits, and a portfolio of dramatic before-and-after photographs, Brian kept his arguments simple, sincere and succinct. Aerial and ground-level photos showed without any doubt the damage already done.

Coastline getting scoured

Coastline getting scoured

As Brian notes, “It must be understood that it is not just the area directly south of the breakwater that is being affected, but the entire stretch of Half Moon Bay. Anyone doubting the integrity of that claim merely has to jump up on the Jetty at a negative tide and take a look at the acres of sand on the harbor side, and then gaze down the coast toward Half Moon Bay to witness the erosion and sand starvation further south.”

Barring dismantling the harbor wall or re-routing the feeder creeks delivering natural sediment into the harbor, the one obvious solution is to pump the sand over to the Jetty side, if more detailed tests on the material confirm that it is non-toxic. Overfelt took it upon himself to have preliminary tests run on the quality of the sand, sampled from four separate locations within the harbor, and found that 98.5% was sand and the balance silt and clay, compared to the EPA’s requirement of an 80% to 20% ratio of sand to silt for dredging. The Surfrider Foundation’s Sarah Corbin mentioned that fecal matter has been found in areas of the harbor, which will require a careful assessment of the source, amid reports of deteriorated sewage pipes that may have to be replaced anyway for the health of the harbor.

Hey, didn't we used to park here?

Hey, didn't we used to park here?

The Corps initial study of the “post-construction changes” of the harbor breakwall backed up Brian’s intuition and observations to the hilt, as a “preponderance of evidence found that the breakwater dramatically increased erosion” according to their own findings. The Corps conservatively estimated that “thousands of feet” of shoreline would be lost as nature redraws its half-moon curves in the bay. At a rate of 80 inches (6.66 feet) a year, that means much of Miramar will be gone in a generation and a half or else it will become a rock island fortress if present policies remain in place. Even worse, according to respected independent Coastal Engineer, Bob Battalio, if nothing is done, CalTrans will be forced to take matters into its own hands and armor the whole area with rock to protect Highway One, as recommended by a Corps report as far back as 1979. To “rock it” would potentially kill off the break for good and ignorantly goad the ocean into redrawing the coastline even further south.

Soon-to-be island nation of Miramar

Soon-to-be island nation of Miramar

From their standpoint, the Army Corps is required to follow several steps before moving forward, and the final authorization is not in their hands. Following an Initial Appraisal (I.A. or “Section 216”) they need to find a local sponsor, which in this case is the San Mateo County Harbor District and General Manager Peter Grenell. Having provided evidence of post-construction environmental changes, they need to justify the economic benefit of moving forward with a plan to alter or adapt the structure. From there, federal-level interest is determined to study and pay for alternatives, or as engineer Tom Kendall termed “begging papers.” The next fork in the road is a “Section 111” authority to study the proposed plan to pump sand and potentially follow with a “demonstration project.” Without intense local support, funding the project this way will be extremely challenging unless determined as a “national security interest,” used by other harbor districts that house U.S. Coast Guard stations to justify dredging, the absence of which places Pillar Point lower on the funding food chain. Otherwise, it may littorally (pun intended) take an Act of Congress to approve dredging.

More vanishing coast, the Venice Beach stairs

More vanishing coast, the Venice Beach stairs

But here’s the catch, while the Harbor District may dredge inside the breakwall, it may not deposit the sand outside the wall, which is the domain of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, without permission. The law explicitly prohibits disposal of dredging materials within the Sanctuary, according to representative Brad Damitz, unless an exemption is granted or the EPA issues an approval. While the Monterey and Santa Cruz harbors had pre-existing sites designated for dredging materials, Pillar Point mysteriously does not. Sanctuary staffers were clearly uncomfortable being labeled as obstructionist or the villains at the meeting, but they made it quite clear that “the marine environment is the number one prerogative or filter through which the Sanctuary views the process through their Coastal Sediment Management program.” Instead, they insist that all alternatives to dredging be considered and that any impact on surrounding reefs and fisheries be studied before moving ahead with any particular plan.

Among those having advised Brian Overfelt on the dredging plan, Davenport-based Save The Waves “advocates the dredging of the harbor, with the fill being disposed over the breakwater wall onto Surfer’s Beach where it will re-nourish starved beaches, creating better surf conditions and protecting the coastline.” Save the Waves was instrumental in putting its organizational and lobbying clout behind the successful “Save Trestles” campaign in San Clemente, along with The Surfrider Foundation and Sierra Club. Their recent Surfonomics study found that Maverick’s alone brings in a socio-economic value of $24 million to the Half Moon Bay region, based on attracting some 420,000 visitors annually. Just imagine what a protected, well-managed beach front with groins to retain growing sandbars would do to that social and economic value. Clearly, increased parking and a footbridge over the highway from the Eastside would be minimum necessary additions for this rare sheltered break on the North Coast, as anyone who has herded kids and dogs across the highway knows.

STW Environmental Director Josh Berry recalls “Brian first caught out attention over a year ago with his incredibly grassroots and inspiring advocacy for Pillar Point harbor dredging. His passion and dedication to this issue has lit a fire under the local community and is really driving the process forward. It has now reached a tipping point, where fresh support and involvement from the community could secure a positive outcome.”

Cliff erosion accelerating rapidly

Cliff erosion accelerating rapidly

“Our first direct involvement in this campaign was in helping to initiate and carry out a sand quality study in which scientific experts studied the quality and size of the sediment proposed to be dredged and funneled to Surfer’s Beach. Sediment either too large (grainy) or too small (muck) would not stay put and stick to the seafloor after being moved,” Berry said. “This would defeat the purpose of the dredge; however, we have confirmed that the sand sediment is of perfect quality to attach to the site and truly nourish the eroded beaches south of the harbor.” The Army Corps actually recommends pumping sufficiently heavy quantities to establish a desired base level on the beaches before throttling back to maintenance levels.

With experience facing similar fights in many other parts of the world, Save The Waves expects the process to be slowed by input from the multiple agencies involved, along with the inevitable politics and turf wars, but can vouch for the importance of a local grassroots campaign. They advocate bringing together all stakeholders and minimizing bureaucracy. As Josh Berry says, “Ultimately, this is about the reclamation of a natural coastline from man-made erosion.”

Can the Jetty and beaches south be improved after dredging the harbor?

There are successful precedents for similar dredging projects, such as the Superbank in Queensland, Australia, which is the product of sand pumped from the Tweed River, though there have been some unintended consequences, such as the loss of surf breaks Kirra and Rainbow Bay down the coast. The costs and benefits will have to be carefully weighed, but the Harbor’s “Shoreline Improvement Working Group” is an important first step, and Brian will need local support and pressure to make sure they remain on track.

Going the route of involving Congress would mean working with Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, along with Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who all sent representatives to the Oceano meeting and expressed interest in working with Overfelt and the rest of the disparate interests. Brian has even gotten the Audubon Society onboard in the interest of rebuilding the habitat of the threatened snowy plover.

Used to be a road

Used to be a road

A number of tall hurdles remain, but Brian is determined to bring the matter to Congress if that’s what it takes: “I don’t understand why the San Mateo County Harbor District wasn’t active in getting Surfer’s Beach designated at a beach nourishment site in 1992–1993 when they had the chance, but that will just be a speed bump in the process. I plan on going to Congress to get the designation myself, if I have to.”

“The need for urgency can’t be stressed enough. We have lost so much shoreline at such an accelerated rate since the completion of the breakwater that there is no time to waste,” warns Overfelt. His grey-haired friend and long-time local surfer Robert “Bird Legs” Caughlan couldn’t agree more: “If they don’t hurry up, Brian will be my age before anything is fixed,” he warned.

Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his blind dog, Moose.

Related posts: