On June 20, about 30 concerned parties met at Jim Howard Hall in Ocean Beach’s Robb Athletic Field to hear city associate civil engineer Paul Jacob present the plan to stem the bluffs’ deterioration. Natural and manmade storm runoff and the impact of thousands of visitors has been wearing down the sandstone surfaces for decades — and Jacob said that while the city has made a number of attempts to halt the erosion, the last 10 years have seen the dilemma enter the public conversation. In 2011, a Yahoo! News service listed the park as the nation’s fourth most-rapidly disappearing natural area because of erosion and other factors.
The park, dedicated in 1983, encompasses 68 acres of bluffs and walking paths that extend from Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) on the south to Adair Street on the north. About 18 acres run parallel to Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, while the remainder is made up of cliffs that descend to the Pacific Ocean.
Jacob said the plan addresses preventive erosion measures only and isn’t designed to remedy damage that’s already occurred.
Today, Jacob said, the regional and state water-quality control boards have incorporated so-called low-impact design and best-management-practice concepts for permits to work on the cliffs. as part of their increasingly stringent five-year requirements.
“We agree with that to the extent it’s possible,” Jacob said.
The city plan would pipe the cliffs, he said, with a series of drains installed at the base of the bluffs, designed to intercept runoff from a so-called 50-year storm, or the amount of rainfall stemming from the most productive single storm of the last half-century.
“That’s a lot of water,” Jacob said. “No [current engineering tool] would be able to hold that much water such that these storm drainpipes were not necessary. But we cannot at this point … put in all of the details about [specific anti-erosion measures] as we move forward,” he said, noting that the permit requirements will likely change as work progresses.
The city has been aware of the cliffs’ erosion since 1926, the year the area came under city jurisdiction. Focus on planning for the park began in 1973. In 1988, the San Diego Park and Recreation Board chartered the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council as the park’s advisory group.
Broad-based community input that consistently supported the concept of natural, open land resulted in the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Master Plan, approved by the city in 2004 and by the California Coastal Commission the following year. The master plan mandated the current 426-page final draft plan. The draft was prepared by Dudek and Associates, an Encinitas engineering consultant.
Steve Jepsen, Dudek senior project manager, said the report contains specific methods of piping. Energy dissipators and pipeshafts measuring 10 feet by 10 feet would be installed, and the affected hillsides would be dyed and textured to blend with the natural surroundings.
Jepsen also said the report features information on perched groundwater, or groundwater that sits above the water-table limit, as a significant source of erosion. But Ann Swanson, chair of the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council, said perched groundwater was never mentioned in prior studies.
“Why did that become so important?” she asked.
Every significant element throughout this process, Jepsen responded, was followed up by public meetings, preceded by workshop parleys. Participants expressed concern about perched groundwater at that time, he added, “leading to the original project manager increasing the scope of work on the problem of erosion. We need to do investigations to verify” the extent to which perched groundwater is a contributing factor.
Still, Swanson said, the report lacks specifics in a number of areas. The city, she said, solicited the park council’s comments until Aug. 8 on items like increased ocean pollution from construction and details on a new park trail project — “and nobody heard back.”
“I would like to remind you,” Jacob said, “that we are in the final stages of this report. We are not going to be doing any major revisions regardless of how strongly you feel that we’ve screwed things up.”
He added that he’ll accept comments on the report until July 20, with modest editorial changes to be incorporated by the end of August.
The deadline is a little disconcerting for at least one official at the San Diego County chapter of Surfrider Foundation, dedicated to the preservation of the world’s oceans and beaches.
“This was called a comprehensive drainage study at this time last year,” said Julia Chunn-Heer, Surfrider campaign coordinator. “But now, the word ‘comprehensive’ is missing. We need implementation now. Every day and every year that we don’t have measures [in place], the park gets worse.
“That’s not a place that I want [for] the park where I grew up surfing ... We need to maintain our beautiful surroundings. It’s taken us seven years to get here, and we need to move toward actual implementation,” she said.
The final draft can be viewed at sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation.
For more information, email PJacob@sandiego.gov.