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Saturday, July 02, 2005 | At the height of the Independence Day celebrations in Pacific Beach last year, the beach had become a writhing, sweating, drinking orgy of humanity. Music blared from loudspeakers erected on the beach, stars and stripes flapped against a brilliant blue sky. Muscles, mascara and machismo reigned on the hot sand.
Fast-forward six hours and the scene had become cold and apocalyptic. The revelers had gone, the sand lay cool and scattered with thousands upon thousands of beer cans, plastic bags, plastic food containers and cigarette butts.
Fourth of July is obviously a day of celebration, but the morning after sees San Diego facing a multifaceted municipal hangover. The high collateral cost of hosting hundreds of thousands of visitors, coupled with environmental and logistical issues make this one of the busiest days for city workers, and one of the most expensive days of the year for San Diego taxpayers.
Stefanie Sekich, a volunteer at the San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said she finds the willful desecration of the city’s beaches every Fourth of July hard to fathom.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Sekich. “It’s sunny, people get drunk and drop their trash. Then it gets dark so they can’t see the mess they have left and they leave.”
Sekich is one of thousands of volunteers who join a July 5 effort to rid the city’s beaches of the evidence of the previous day’s festivities. Last year, according to Lifeguard Lt. John Greenhalgh, more than a million people visited San Diego’s beaches on Independence Day. City budget figures show that the total cost of increased staff, trash collection, portable restrooms and sundry other items amounted to $641,196.
The roughly 50 cents per visitor does not, however, completely cover the human cost of cleaning up the mess left behind at ocean and bay beaches. Although city employees begin clearing the beaches almost immediately after the last partygoer has downed his or her last can of beer and moved on, local environmentalists said there’s only so much the city workers can do.
“We get there at about 7 a.m., and the city has already been there and cleared up the sand,” said Elizabeth Studebaker, outreach director at San Diego Baykeeper. “Basically, it’s our job to pick up trash everywhere else. And believe me, people leave trash everywhere else.”
This year, two prominent environmental groups – the Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Baykeeper – have organized beach cleanups. Organizers of the Surfrider cleanup, dubbed “The Morning-After Mess Beach Cleanup Day,” are hoping to woo youngsters and families to the city’s beaches with offers of free T-shirts and autograph signings by professional surfers. Sekich also pointed out that the beach cleanup qualifies as community service time.
In addition to the cleanup organization, the city’s Independence Day celebrations are a logistical nightmare for city emergency services. Greenhalgh said July 4 is undoubtedly the busiest day of the year for lifeguards.
“We’ve coined the phrase that this is our Super Bowl,” he said.
According to Greenhalgh, the lifeguard service made 9,210 preventive acts and 418 water rescues on last year’s Fourth of July. He compared these figures with those for the Saturday before that. On that day, 275,000 people visited San Diego’s beaches, and lifeguards made 2,300 preventive acts and 144 rescues. Greenhalgh said the lifeguards implement a Fourth of July operations plan, with contingencies for everything from staffing issues to beach access problems.
“We have a saying, ‘we need to take back the beach,’” he said.
Another major player in the reclaiming of the city’s beaches is the San Diego Police Department. Lt. Boyd Long said the fact that July 4 falls on a Monday this year represents a “worst case scenario” for the police department. However, he stressed that the role of the police as party poopers will be minimalized.
“From our perspective, we want people to come to the beach and enjoy it,” said Long. “That’s what we believe the beach is all about.”
Long said the police department will be deploying hundreds of extra personnel over the duration of the Independence Day weekend. The numbers of police officers stationed at the beach will gradually increase on Saturday and Sunday, but will peak on Independence Day. Long said the department has carved up the beach into manageable sections, each of which will have its own team of officers assigned to keep the peace. The cost to San Diego of the extra deployments is close to $500,000.
Last year saw a big jump in the number of felony arrests made by police officers on the holiday. Thirty-three felony arrests were made last year, compared with just five on July 4, 2003. The numbers of misdemeanor arrests and misdemeanor arrest citations was also sharply up in 2004. The total number of citations, arrests, warnings and detentions increased threefold last year from 2004, rising from 1,171 to 3,173.
This year sees a continuation of the ban on kegs on city beaches. A proposed all-out ban on alcohol on the beach on July 4 was voted down in City Council last year.
Long said alcohol definitely has a part to play in blurring the line between fun and friction on the city’s beaches.
“Alcohol, without a doubt, brings additional problems,” he said. “You impair someone’s ability to make good, rational decisions, and it’s going to cause us some extra grief.”
Despite the cleanup, safety and policing headaches, however, Independence Day is still all about enjoyment and celebration. The party set can join the revelers on the city’s beaches for the day whereas families and those wishing to avoid the oiled-up crowds can enjoy a number of fireworks displays happening around the city.
The fireworks display at La Jolla Cove is in its 21st year. The annual display always attracts a big crowd, so get there early. In the heart of the city, the Big Bay fireworks over Mission Bay feature pyrotechnics launched from barges floating out on the bay itself. Fireworks by SeaWorld offer a more extensive version of their nightly fireworks show on July 4. Lastly, the Mission Bay Yacht Club offers a fireworks display starting at 8:45 p.m.
Please contact Will Carless directly at
View a list of more Fourth of July fireworks events.
For more information on the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego chapter, visit
For more information on San Diego Baykeeper, visit