In 2001, the San Diego Association of Governments was dredging off the coast of Imperial Beach, picking up sand to replenish the eroding coastline. But workers quickly realized the sand they were picking up did not match the color and type of sand already on the beach.

So Sandag suspended the project. It found another section of ocean floor farther away with better sand and hauled it more than 20 miles back.

Sandag’s project was a beach nourishment project, designed solely to replace eroding sand. It’s a costly problem, beach communities say: Erosion makes their beaches less attractive and leaves property vulnerable to damage from rising sea levels. Because Sandag’s primary goal was to find good, clean sand, it had the flexibility to find another site, even if it cost more.

That’s a key difference between the Sandag project — widely applauded as successful and environmentally sensitive — and the ongoing dredging project in Mission Beach, decried by residents and environmental groups for the hazardous material like metal and wiring being found on the beach.

The Army Corps of Engineers is removing sand from the entrance to Mission Bay, a federal navigation channel. Unlike the Sandag project, the Army Corps’ primary goal is to deepen the channel so boats can pass safely. Its goal is not to improve beaches.

But the Army Corps still has to get rid of the sand, which the city wants to use to protect almost a mile of Mission Beach’s coastline and keep it attractive. Mayor Jerry Sanders even lobbied for stimulus money to pay for the $5.3 million dredging project.

There’s a problem. When the sand is a byproduct, not a goal, what’s removed from the channel’s bottom is what the city gets.

“They don’t have the option to find another source of sand,” said Rob Rundle, a Sandag regional planner who managed the environmental review for its 2001 replenishment project.

The Army Corps said it is complying with federal requirements to test chemical levels and the sand’s grain size. It requires the private company completing the project to remove debris.

They haven’t always fulfilled all their promises, though.

Last week, the Army Corps and the company, Manson Construction, said a man would be posted at the discharge pipe to immediately remove debris as it came out. We visited Wednesday night; no man was stationed there.

And the torrent of water and sand gushing from the pipe was not well-lit, as had been promised.

That changed Thursday night, when a man was posted and lights were on. Even still, the flow was so intense it would’ve been difficult to spot debris.

In a statement issued Monday, the commander of the local Army Corps district said debris on the beach was inevitable. The channel was last dredged 25 years ago, and “a variety of objects have made their way to the channel floor. That is a fact of life,” Col. Mark Toy said.

“Along with sand comes undesired and unintended material,” he said. “Unfortunately, not every piece of undesirable material has been located and removed.”

He said Manson Construction had already removed several Dumpsters full of debris and increased efforts to remove more, including maintaining a 24-hour presence at the beach where the sand is being dumped.

“I understand the public’s concerns about wanting a safe and enjoyable beach,” he wrote, “and can assure them the Army Corps of Engineers and Manson Construction are taking all practical steps to provide it.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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