Three Natural Threats to Waterfront Development in San Diego

Three Natural Threats to Waterfront Development in San Diego

File photo

The San Diego waterfront.

The beaches and the Pacific Ocean are what draw so many people to San Diego. And visitors need places to eat, sit and sleep.

But you have to be really careful when you build things near the coast. Nature doesn’t appreciate wooden piers and five-star hotels as much as we do.

Here are three things developers need to consider before they build on the waterfront:

Beach Erosion

It turns out that sand may not be so timeless after all.

San Diego County’s two littoral cells — miles of coastline, basically — have been worn down by population growth, urban sprawl and dams that have changed the way sand filters down to the beaches through the county’s watersheds.

Since the end of World War II, the Oceanside cell, which runs north from La Jolla to Dana Point, has lost 55 percent of its sand. And the Silver Strand, which stretches from Point Loma to Ensenada, Mexico, has lost more than 70 percent.

This is a problem because “beaches are ‘first responders’ that protect our coasts from erosion when high-energy winter storms bring heavy surf,” according to research from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and “sand-starved beaches cannot shield the coast from erosion.”

In other words, the less sand we have, the more havoc intense storms can wreak on waterfront property.

Coastal Flooding

Regardless of what we call it, climate change is a problem that’s not going away, and it’s “likely to worsen many problems that coastal areas already face,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Like erosion. And flooding.

Scripps researchers are concerned about both.

The West Coast “caught a break” over the last few decades, but Scripps has found that new wind patterns could start driving sea levels higher this decade.

They’ve seen a direct connection between higher sea levels and “increases in the frequency and severity of coastal flooding.” And that will pose a threat to roads, power generators and property if we don’t build sea walls high or strong enough to contain the waves.

An estimated 250,000 people and $50 billion worth of property are at risk in California. Those figures could nearly double if the pattern continues.

Scripps researchers were among dozens of regional stakeholders who developed a strategy to adapt to sea level rise in San Diego.

“With so much at stake, it is critical to begin considering policy responses long before the worst impacts associated with sea level rise are projected to occur,” the group wrote in a report published last year, “because developing and implementing solutions will require unprecedented collaboration with long lead times.”

Among their key recommendations was to urge regulators to provide clear guidance to public agencies that issue development permits. Sea-level rise and future flood levels should be taken into account, they said.

Water Supply

When flood waters surge toward a poorly protected shore, they can compromise the supply of water — something San Diego can’t afford to waste.

In their sea-level rise adaptation strategy, the working group listed a host of potential problems.

Flooding could disrupt the flow of drinkable water to residents and businesses near the coast.

“Highly vulnerable” hazardous waste sites could contaminate the water and soil if underground pumps or storage tanks were jarred loose.

And overloaded sewers in low-lying areas could spew toilet water into the bay, which could destroy “irreplaceable habits” for endangered species.

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Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the Unified Port of San Diego. You can reach him directly at joel.hoffmann@voiceofsandiego.org.

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