Grassroots workshops to help stem bluffs erosion
by Martin Jones Westlin
Published - 10/04/12 - 02:06 PM | 8042 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The San Diego chapter of Surfrider is launching a series of workshops as part of its Ocean Friendly Gardens program, designed to educate Sunset Cliffs-area residents about appropriate landscaping, building healthy soils, and rainwater capture and irrigation to help stave off the deep erosion of the cliffs.                                                                            Courtesy photo
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The Peninsula area faces an almost legendary problem with the erosion of the bluffs at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a 68-acre site extending 1½ miles along the Point Loma’s western shoreline. And as the city mulls a plan designed to solve the problem once and for all, the San Diego chapter of Surfrider is banking on a remedy it asserts can quietly help curb potential disaster.

It’s called Ocean Friendly Gardens, launched by the national Surfrider office three years ago to prevent urban runoff and restore natural watersheds. Beginning Monday, Oct. 8, local residents will be instructed in ways to modify their landscaping to absorb more rainwater and re-channel runoff pollutants. The three-part program, funded in part through a state grant, is one of several throughout the country. San Diego Surfrider held a similar event last year in Oceanside.

Julia Chunn-Heer, the local Surfrider campaign coordinator, stresses that everyone is a potential source of both the problem and the solution at Sunset Cliffs.

“We want to get people to look at their house as a city watershed and address the problem in that fashion, not just compartmentalize it,” said Chunn-Heer. “You don’t want to do just water conservation. The steps in Ocean Friendly Gardens help with water conservation and address runoff and the bluff erosion. It’s all connected.

“Ocean Friendly Gardens is a big program,” she said. “We want everybody in the county to do it, whether you live in Escondido, La Mesa or La Jolla. But [regarding] Sunset Cliffs, it’s especially relevant. Not only does it help reduce water-quality problems and urban runoff, it can help stop the erosion at the park. Those types of principles on a larger scale are exactly what we’re … talking about, teaching people to slow, spread and sink the water.”

Last fall, Yahoo!’s news blog Wanderlust cited the bluffs at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park as among the country’s five most-rapidly disappearing natural landscapes, alongside Florida’s Everglades National Park. Decades of runoff from residences and streets, coupled with soil depletion from constant foot traffic, push portions of the cliffs oceanward, causing them to break from their foundations. Less obvious, but just as detrimental, are the waters within the bluffs, which exert natural forces on formations made impermeable over the centuries.

Last month, the city’s Park and Recreation Department issued the final version of its drainage study on the bluffs. The study, prepared by Dudek, an Encinitas-based civil engineering and environmental consultant firm, calls for piping the cliffs, with a series of drains installed at the base of the bluffs, designed to intercept runoff from a so-called 50-year storm — that is, the amount of rainfall stemming from the most productive single storm of the last half-century.

The plan would cost about $10 million, with most of that to go toward construction. The city has been aware of the cliffs’ erosion since 1926, the year the area came under city jurisdiction. A 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.

Today, Surfrider officials said a halt to the erosion may lay in less-invasive procedures, like the installation of natural vegetation, drainage courses designed to remove pollution from runoff, redirection of gutters away from the park soil and low-impact development plans.

But Paul Jacob, the city’s associate civil engineer, cautioned that such remedies are offered in the wrong context.

“These solutions are great,” Jacob told The Beacon in March, “but [environmentalists are] proposing a naturalized solution in an unnatural environment. All along the park, you have an urbanized watershed. When it rains, you have a lot more water coming down toward the bluffs than would have ever occurred in its natural state, when it was just brushy hillsides. The whole notion of natural [redirection] is good, but that would be inadequate to handle the volume of runoff we have to deal with. There’s just too much water.”

Chunn-Heer, however, appears to be thinking the same thing on her end. The typical San Diego homeowner, she said, irrigates a lawn to the tune of about 54 inches of water a year—far in excess of levels necessary to maintain healthy grass. That’s how much runoff, erosive to the bluffs and polluted with dirt and oils, the nearby residents fuel without knowing it.

Enter the Ocean Friendly Gardens program, with its three-pronged approach. The first installment, called the Basics Class, centers on the idea of a house as a watershed and will be held Monday, Oct. 8, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Point Loma Nazarene University. Next is the Hands-On Workshop, featuring principles of rainwater capture and irrigation systems, set for Sunday, Nov. 4, from 9 a.m. to noon at a Sunset Cliffs-area venue to be announced. Rounding out the program is the Garden Assistance Party, centering on the building of healthy soils and installing climate-appropriate plants. This event is set for Sunday, Jan. 13, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., also at an undetermined Sunset Cliffs location.

For more information about Ocean Friendly Gardens or to register for the class, visit and click on the image pertaining to the events, email, or call (858) 792-9940.
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