Infrastructure Along Ocean Beach Needs Repair

As summer approaches, even in foggy weather, Ocean Beach and the Great Highway is an attraction for traffic and visitors from everywhere. This is why San Francisco Dept. of Public Works and a collaboration of other agencies want to work quickly to repair the bluff section near the Great Highway and south of Sloat Blvd from erosion in last year’s winter storm.

DPW hosted a community meeting to over 30 people on May 6, at the Janet Pomeroy Recreation Center for the Handicapped on Slyline Blvd not far from Great Highway and Ocean Beach.

The purpose of the meeting that Thursday evening was to alert the public that the erosion that occurred in that stretch was extensive, affecting more than 900 feet. During the past winter storms, in some spots along the bluff of the Great Highway up to 70 feet had receded.

With the assistance of the National Park Service, California Coastal Commission and the CA Dept. of Fish & Game, over 1,000 tons of debris were removed from the beach and a 425 foot rock revetment or embankment was installed.

Repair work has been in progress since January, getting the most critical portions stabilized at a cost of 1.5 million. These urgent repairs from the winter storms of 2009 were completed this past April and are considered “Phase I.”

Yet Ed Reiskin, director of DPW, told the audience that this erosion repair is only a short-term fix. “We don’t want to just throw up barricades,” he said. “We will need more detailed, long term planning.”

Ocean Beach and the surrounding coastline are vital to the environmental health of the City and Bay Area. Steady population growth and ever-changing demographics continue to make an impact on the entire coastal area.

The City’s infrastructure is of great concern, especially since the waste water tunnel and sewage treatment plant are at Ocean Beach. If that sewage treatment plant was to be disrupted or broken by further erosion, the consequences would be chaotic citywide.

“The City is in a difficult situation because it has spent millions of dollars on the sewage treatment plant,” said George Durgerian, media rep for National Parks Service.

“They have to protect their infrastructure, he told the Sunset Beacon, but they also know that you can’t beat Mother Nature,” added Durgerian.

Durgerian pointed out that “some of the techniques used in the erosion control project have met with mixed results,” (such as soil nails and piling). “In our goal to preserve the environmental integrity of Ocean Beach and the surrounding coastline we prefer the most natural means and materials used for these projects,” Durgerian said.

While the two hour presentation and discussion on May 6 was sweeping, covering many aspects, people listened and asked questions.

Representatives from several City, State and Federal agencies were present. Among them were Astrid Haryati of the Mayor’s office, Gabriel Metcalf of the non-profit SF Planning & Urban Research (SPUR), the National Park Service and District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

DPW and other agencies like the State Costal Conservancy are all working together hoping that “Phase II” of the repair work will be able to protect the Great Highway from further erosion damage. Cost estimates for the Phase II and then Phase III have not been tabulated yet.

City officials at the May 6 meeting mentioned that while estimates for Phase II and Phase III have not been tallied, there is over 2 million dollars secured for this project through previously approved bond measure funds.

Speaking on behalf of the State Coastal Conservancy, Moira McEnespy, Deputy Program Manager for SF, said, “we are very much looking forward to working with the community, SPUR, the City, the National Parks Service/GGNRA, and others to holistically address issues and opportunities at Ocean Beach,”

“We are fortunate to be able to build off previous work by the Ocean Beach Vision Council,” said McEnespy. She is hopefully anticipating that funding will be approved from the conservancy and other sources.

June 2010

Déjà Vu: Tackling the Breach at Ocean Beach

On January 11, 2010 Mayor Gavin Newsom declared “a state of local emergency to exist in connection with the severe erosion along the Great Highway, due to a series of large swells, windstorms and rain storms at Ocean Beach.” Parts of the Great Highway were slipping into the ocean, and parking lots at the bottom of Sloat Boulevard were disintegrating.

Yes, recent wind and rain storms eroded Ocean Beach, but this “emergency” was actually caused by years of City-deferred maintenance, inaction, and neglect. Much like what happened to the New Orleans levees, San Francisco has long known that parts of the Great Highway — especially the 3,000-foot section between Sloat Boulevard and Fort Funston — face being permanently washed away. It’s embarrassing that City officials have once again been caught off guard by a known and often recurring problem. Can anyone say “déjà vu”?

San Francisco’s problems with Ocean Beach are man-made problems.

San Francisco caused Ocean Beach’s beach-erosion problem by repeatedly increasing its size using landfill, and then building on the landfill. The current shoreline is a man-made extension. Between 1895 and the 1930’s the Ocean Beach shoreline was pushed at least two hundred feet seaward to promote urban development. Between the 1940’s and 1960’s, concrete debris, bricks, soil, and sand were used to increase the width of the beach and to form artificial bluffs. The City continued to increase the size of the beach through the 1980’s. The Pacific Ocean is now simply reclaiming the man-made beach and in-fill that has been extended into the Ocean.

The Real Problem

The City built the massive 16-year-old Lake Merced Sewage Pipe directly underneath (40 feet below) the Great Highway; it was completed in 1994 as part of the San Francisco PUC’s $200 million Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant. The Highway and parking lots were built on landfill the Ocean is now reclaiming. While the 14 foot diameter pipe was tunneled in harder native materials at elevations below the adjacent beach, it was located very close to the Ocean, below the southbound lanes of the highway. After ocean waves tore into the bluff that supports the Great Highway, the sewage pipe was just 10 yards — barely 30 feet! — from the ocean’s edge. Over 10 million gallons of Westside raw sewage and wastewater flow through this pipe following rainy conditions. The pipe takes sewage to the Oceanside Treatment Plant where it is partially treated and then pumped through an underwater pipe for release four miles out into the sea. As the shoreline recedes, there is a very good chance that the Lake Merced Sewage Pipe will either end up buried under the ocean floor, or exposed to the ocean.

Any rupture to the sewage pipe could cause a huge ecological disaster, involving millions of gallons of treated and effluent (partially-treated) sewage and liquid waste pouring into the ocean and onto the fragile coastline. Earthquake-induced liquefaction to the area may pose another distinct threat.

The president of the California Shore and Beach Preservation Association, Bob Battalio, who is a professional civil engineer, states, “The Ocean Beach landfill is not sustainable against the active shoreline. The real problem isn’t erosion, it’s that the City built crutial infrastructure on landfill and too close to the ocean. We once thought the Lake Merced Sewage Pipe was safe for the near term because of its low elevation and strength. Based on the City’s assessment of vulnerability, we were wrong.”

According to the Department of Public Works (DPW), some sections of ocean bluffs south of Sloat Boulevard have eroded by up to 70 feet just within the last year. The rock crown of the Southwest Ocean Outfall Pipe — part of the plant that discharges partially-treated wastewater four miles off shore into the Pacific Ocean — is also threatened by erosion. A 2009 report filed by the Pacific Institute shows San Francisco’s sea level rose eight inches during the last 100 years, but is expected to rise an additional four-and-a-half feet — yes, feet — by 2100 due to increases in ocean temperatures and melting ice sheets. Report calculations project that Northern California’s sandy dunes could retreat an average of 558 feet (186 yards) and cliffs could recede an average of 217 feet by 2100. Higher sea levels, coupled with high tides and fierce storms, will cause storm waves to make increasingly deeper inroads into the receding shoreline.

The City has responded to the latest Ocean Beach “emergency” by placing a 425-foot-long rock wall — approximately 12,000 tons of rock — south of Sloat Boulevard below the San Francisco Zoo. This rock wall is alternatively called a revetment or coastal armoring. The revetment starts at the base of the eroded beach area and extends up the cliff’s face. Ideally, sand will be added on top of the rock to increase the width of the Bluff. The Army Corps of Engineers — the same folks involved with the New Orleans levees — is continuing to dump sand near the coastal armoring hoping to create a beach and changing the ocean’s littoral (sand transport) current, but this “beach nourishment” approach is limited at this location because the Ocean’s littoral current is taking sand away from this section of shore; as the surrounding shores recede, this divergent zone is aimed directly at the Great Highway and the Lake Merced Sewage Pipe. This has the same effect as aiming water from a hose directly onto pavement 24/7.

The emergency Ocean Beach coastal armoring is a short-term, Band-Aid approach that will gradually fail. Coastal armoring can only be engineered to accommodate a certain storm size or rise in sea level. Coastal armoring of Ocean Beach requires regular monitoring and constant, expensive maintenance. Paradoxically, armoring is not as effective as natural shorelines at dissipating the energy from waves and tides. As a result, armored shorelines tend to be more vulnerable to erosion, causing increased erosion of adjacent beaches.

“As the sea rises, San Franciscans will be forced to decide: Should we adapt to the changing environment, or should we try to make it adapt to us? “

By the time the City actually develops a long-term plan for Ocean Beach, we may all be up to our knees in sea water filled with effluvium (odorous fumes given off by waste or decaying matter).

In July 1999, then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom voted with the unanimous Board of Supervisors by passing Resolution 698-99, which prohibited the expenditure of funds on the use of hard rock structures (such as rock revetment or seawalls) to stabilize conditions at Ocean Beach. This year, the City circumvented the Board’s 1999 Resolution by declaring an emergency and began expending funds on coastal armoring of Ocean Beach. The 1999 Board’s Resolution also called for the establishment of a long-term plan to address erosion at Ocean Beach.

In 2002, Mayor Willie Brown’s Ocean Beach Task Force issued Resolution 001-02-COE, which recommended supporting long-term solutions “through the planning partnership process.” The Mayor took three years before establishing, in 2005, the Ocean Beach Vision Council charged with developing a 30- to 50-year plan for Ocean Beach. The Vision Council must be wearing very dark sunglasses, since it blindly hasn’t even issued a draft report in the five years since being created. The DPW and the Recreation and Park Department are currently working on a plan with the Army Corps of Engineers. It is unclear how much of the Recreation and Park Department’s budget is funding the coastal armoring to protect City recreation and park land.

On April 19, 2010, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, with the support of Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, drafted a new Board Resolution requesting a “comprehensive planning process be re-established to develop long-term solutions to the erosion problems at Ocean Beach.” None of these attempts at long-term plans are either drafted, followed, implemented, or completed. Nothing changes except the eroding shoreline’s increased risk to the 14-foot-diameter Lake Merced Sewage Pipe and the Great Highway above it, and risks to the Southwest Ocean Outfall Pipe.

It’s time for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), the City’s private think tank, to bring all Ocean Beach stake-holders together to really draft a 30- to 50-year plan for Ocean Beach. SPUR has the connections, knowledge, experience, and vision to develop a realistic plan. SPUR’s stated mission is to promote good planning and good government for San Francisco. SPUR’s Executive Director, Gabriel Metcalf, states, “If SPUR is able to help with the master planning, our role will be to ensure that all the different viewpoints get heard and that the solutions are really working with the full technical information about the ecological processes.”

Coastal experts such as Mr. Battalio are recommending a gradual surrender of the coastline to the Ocean. They believe that: 1) Infrastructure such as the Great Highway and the Lake Merced Sewage Pipe may have to be moved away from coastal erosion hazard zones; 2) Coastal armoring and structural measures should be minimized, with all armoring and rubble to be removed as soon as practical; 3) A sand management plan needs to be developed where sand is placed to maintain the beach and dunes; 4) The natural ecology of Ocean Beach’s flora and fauna needs to be re-established; and 5) There should be extensive Ocean Beach monitoring and adaptive management. This should become the template for the City’s long overdue Ocean Beach management plan.

As the sea rises, San Franciscans will be forced to decide: Should we adapt to the changing environment, or should we try to make it adapt to us? No matter what we do, there will be consequences down the line. It’s time to decide the fate of Ocean Beach and San Francisco’s endangered infrastructure. San Francisco needs to immediately develop a realistic, long-term plan, before the 14-foot-diameter sewage pipe and the Great Highway only 40 feet above it collapse under the weight of inaction.

George Wooding is the President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council. Feedback: More info:

May 2010