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Monday, July 16, 2007 | The perfectly curled waves at San Onofre’s Trestles Beach are the result of a meeting thousands of years in the making. Technically born hundreds of miles away from the shore in the deep, cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, the waves only begin to take shape when they hit shallow water, where they gently curl over the cobblestone reefs that line the shores.
These small, round stones start their lives as much larger ragged rocks, slowly bumping and skidding their way down San Mateo Creek until they hit the watershed. Here, they wait for the creek and the ocean to merge after a large rain, when they can finally make their move toward the ocean floor.
Nearby on Interstate 5, cars have a much less harmonious meeting in the form of gridlock.
These two separate meetings have gone on side by side for decades, but are now coming together in a tumultuous debate over environmental protection and traffic mitigation. A proposed toll road near Trestles Beach has environmentalists worried that the project and subsequent development may destroy the legendary waves at Trestles by altering the natural flow of cobblestones and sand to the area.
“This project is a big, grand experiment on one of the best quality beaches in the state,” said Elisabeth Brown, a member of the Laguna Greenbelt Coalition.
Environmentalists and the project’s developers, the Transportation Corridor Agencies, have been engaged in a very public battle over the proposed road for more than a decade. The Surfrider Foundation, a major player in the fight, created the “Save Trestles” campaign in response to the toll road and has drawn in high-profile surfers like Pat O’Connell and even famous music groups like Pearl Jam.
Concerns over the possible effects on the world-renowned Trestles surf break have led both proponents and opponents of the project to conduct scientific tests examining how the 16-mile-long, six-lane road might harm the beach’s famously consistent waves.
Supporters of the project say the road offers an environmentally sound solution to traffic in the area.
Environmentalists insist that the road’s potential impacts are so multifaceted that they cannot be completely predicted nor mitigated, as the concrete and construction that come to the park will disrupt its natural balance. They say the transportation agencies can’t be sure that the road won’t have an impact.
“Nobody can say this will happen on the beach, but the potential is there,” said Mark Rauscher, Surfrider’s assistant executive director.
Wave Breaks and Traffic Aches
Recognized around the world and immortalized in the Beach Boys song, “Surfin’ USA,” Trestles Beach sits at the edge of San Onofre State Park. Named after the railroad trestles that cross the edge of the beach, the beach is only accessible by a pedestrian trailhead. The 3,000-acre state park was established in 1971 by Gov. Ronald Reagan and includes the San Mateo Creek Watershed — one of the last un-dammed streams in Southern California — and the San Mateo Campgrounds.
“Trestles feels like a private beach,” said James Thomas, a San Diego resident who has been surfing Trestles for more than a decade. “Trestles brings in a different type of surfer and is basically the complete opposite of any city beach out there.”
Thomas said that the 1.5-mile-long hike down to Trestles is what gives the beach its secluded feel. The trail starts off the exit at Cristianitos Road in San Clemente, winds directly below Interstate 5 before ending up beneath railroad tracks on the edge of the sand.
While the waves at Trestles have remained consistent over the years, the traffic on the nearby freeway has grown consistently worse. The TCA estimates 126,000 cars cross the Orange County-San Diego County border every weekday, and is expected to increase 60 percent by the year 2025.
“We’re trying to convince people that it is possible to have traffic relief and build a road in an environmental, sensible way,” said TCA spokeswoman Jennifer Seaton.
Cobblestones and Concrete
The possible threat Foothill South poses to the waves at Trestles caused both sides to closely examine wave formation, and what role the nearby San Mateo Creek plays in the break at Trestles.
According to a TCA report, while waves begin to form miles away from shore, their form and shape begin to take hold as they enter shallow waters and “feel” the bottom of the shoreline, causing them to refract or bend. The particular contours of a shoreline’s bottom, known as bathymetry, are the major factors in determining how a wave breaks.
Water quality plays a more minor role in wave formation, but is important in the preservation of the nearby San Mateo Creek Watershed. In a break like Trestles, sediment flows from nearby creeks and watersheds bring in sand and stones that create the break’s cobblestone reef and sand bottom, according to the report by GeoSoils Inc.
Environmentalists argue that if the water in the creek is polluted, the natural flow of cobblestones and sand between the watershed and the ocean will be disrupted, causing the reef to disappear and the break to diminish.
Both GeoSoils Inc. and the report done for Surfrider by Phillip Williams & Associates attribute the wave formations at Trestles to the cobblestones that are brought down San Mateo Creek, along with other sediment materials such as sand and silt. While San Mateo Creek only joins up with the ocean after large rains, both reports conclude that this breach is a vital process in keeping the bathymetry favorable to good wave formation.
How a toll road would affect the break is where both studies begin to differ.
Dave Skelley, an engineer at GeoSoils Inc. and a longtime Surfrider Foundation member, said he neither opposes nor supports the toll road. Skelley said that while he was hired by TCA to examine the effect of the road on the waves, he considers his findings to be purely factual.
“As a surfer, I thought about this long and hard,” Skelley said. “There have been projects like this where it has affected the surf, but with Trestles that just won’t be the case.”
Skelley said that cobblestones make their way down the creek from the easternmost portion of the watershed, where they start out as jagged rocks and are broken down over thousands of years into the round and smooth cobblestones found at Trestles Beach.
“Where these rocks come from is not anywhere near where the alignment of the road will be,” Skelley said.
Skelley said TCA will put in place adequate water cleaning measures, such as runoff catching water basins, along both the new road and existing Interstate 5. He is confident this will prevent runoff from the interstate from making it to the creek or to the ocean.
“Building this road will help clean up a section of road (Interstate 5) that is currently polluting the creek and the area every day,” Skelley said.
Rauscher, from the Surfrider Foundation, disagrees.
“There has never been a road that was built that didn’t pollute,” Rauscher said. He said the extra water basins are an exercise in futility.
“It’s a joke,” Rauscher said. “The water there is pristine, how can you improve on perfection?”
In the report done by PWA, the hydro-engineers concluded that the frequency of the creek’s breaching with the ocean would be changed if the watershed becomes polluted by the large amounts of paving, digging and grading the project requires.
In the project’s environmental impact report, TCA determined that sediment flow would only be decreased by 1 percent. Surfrider’s study disagreed with this number, saying the TCA didn’t take into account the cumulative effects of pollution and was overconfident in how well pollution mitigation measures would work.
James Birkelund, a senior project attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, is currently suing TCA. He said the agencies did not look at all of the possible sediment-flow effects to the area in their final environmental report.
“The bottom line is that the effects to the area have not been fully examined and by not doing so, they are putting the waves at risk,” Birkelund said.
Both reports relied heavily on the previous research of the area by Douglas Inman, a professor of oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and although he is not familiar with the toll road plans, he is skeptical of pollution-prevention measures like water basins.
“If everything is correct and ideal, they will work, but things rarely are,” Inman said.
He said the cobblestones come from the easternmost part of the watershed, but he said that even slight disturbances during construction could have long lasting consequences for the pollution in the creek and the amount of rocks and sand that mix together at the shore.
“How often does something have to come in contact with pollution before it is considered polluted?” Inman said. “Even in infrequent occurrences, it would make a difference.”
A Precedence-Setting Path
Skelley admits that, while the surf may not change, there is no denying that the whole experience of visiting Trestles will be altered by the project.
“When you walk down there, you won’t be walking down that same trail,” Skelley said. “It won’t change the surf, but it will change the experience.”
Rauscher considers the two one in the same.
“Part of the draw of Trestles is more than just the break, it’s hiking down to the wave and leaving the chaos,” Rauscher said. Rauscher said that fighting the toll road is also a battle to keep future development out of state parkland.
“We’re not just fighting to stop that road,” Rauscher said. “We are fighting to stop all of the other stuff that will happen down the line because of the road.”
San Diego Councilwoman Donna Frye, longtime surfer and wife of surfboard shaper Skip Frye, calls the project an example of “creeping incrementalism.” A proposal for the city to oppose the toll road is expected to come before council in September.
“Little by little, we have seen our coastal communities start to become urbanized and more roads means more development,” Frye said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”