A man stares at the ocean during high tide in Oceanside on Sept. 5, 2023.
A man stares at the ocean during high tide in Oceanside on Sept. 5, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Oceanside’s beaches were so wide before the construction of Camp Pendleton military base, beachgoers raced cars along the sandy shore. 

Now beachgoers sit perched atop boulder revetments at mid-tide – the thing protecting property from the onslaught of waves. 

I recently wrote that the city of Oceanside is about to spend $2.6 million of its own money to save its beaches from disappearing into the Pacific Ocean. But Oceanside – and potentially all of San Diego – would have much more beach if the federal government hadn’t built Camp Pendleton and its harbor in the first place.  

Congressman Mike Levin reiterated that fact in a 2019 letter to the Pentagon: “The cause of the damage and need for measures to mitigate the erosion is unquestioned. The federal government first acknowledged responsibility for the erosion in 1953 and since that, multiple studies reaffirmed that conclusion.” 

That’s also the finding of the San Diego Association of Governments – or SANDAG, a regional governmental planning organization – which made it their job to save the county’s dwindling coastlines. Beaches began to shrink regionwide in the 1980s, so SANDAG created a shoreline preservation working group to bring scientists, elected leaders and the public to collaborate on regional projects that grow and protect the coast. 

Racing on the Beach North of the Pier in Oceanside./ Oceanside Historical Society

All the sand flowing from the Santa Margarita River eventually stopped by the military’s harbor and jetty “represents one if not the most potentially productive contribution to the coastal sediment budget for the San Diego region,” according to a 2009 SANDAG report.  

Rivers flowing out to sea were one of the largest sources of sand along California’s coast. But most of southern California’s rivers and creeks have been dammed for water storage or impacted by development in some way.  

With no sand flowing from rivers, humans have to engineer beaches. Groups like SANDAG hire a ship to come and suck sand off the deep ocean floor and spew it out onto the beaches in massive amounts every decade or so – a process known as beach nourishment. These dredging vessels, as they’re called, are hard to come by. 

Keith Greer, a SANDAG environmental compliance manager, said there is no such dredging vessel dedicated to the West Coast.  

“For the last two regional sand beach projects, they had to actually get a dredge from the East Coast go all the way through the Panama Canal through to San Diego. Very expensive to do that,” Greer said.  

Greer said beach managers have been talking for decades about securing a West Coast-based dredge to regularly replenish beaches along the southern California coast. For now, cities and SANDAG cobble together grant and public dollars to slap down sand every seven to 10 years.  

It’s cheaper to use sand from the ocean floor versus dry land, Greer said.  

SANDAG looked at 10 different offshore sand deposits during its last round of beach nourishment in 2009. It’s starting that process back up now. The agency will hire a contractor to survey the quality of the underwater sand deposits again.  

The quality of the sand matters. It’s a Goldilocks situation: The sand grains can’t be too large or too small. But that beautiful, golden beach sand can be hard to find.  

A lot of good sand from the Santa Margarita River – at least 3 million cubic yards – is sitting just north of the Camp Pendleton harbor jetty structure. That wasn’t the jetty’s intended purpose, but the unfortunate outcome for Oceanside and cities south. SANDAG once talked to the base about constructing some kind of bypass that would allow all that beach sand to flow southbut reported no end result back in 2009.  

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which facilitates regular dredging of the harbors north of Oceanside, didn’t return my calls or emails about the issue.  

But two things are clear: San Diego is losing its beaches and there’s plenty of untapped sand to be had.  

A man stares at the ocean during high tide in Oceanside on Sept. 5, 2023.
A man stares at the ocean during high tide in Oceanside on Sept. 5, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The Army Corps just agreed to a long-fought 50-year beach nourishment project for the cities of Solana Beach and Encinitas. And the Army Corps is reportedly preparing to embark on a similar plan for Oceanside.  

Greer is hoping for a region-wide solution instead of going through decades of studies and planning city by city. 

“We got to give Solana Beach and Encinitas credit for jumping on top of this problem back in 2012,” Greer said. “Now the rest of the region should try to elevate itself and use the Army Corps and see if there’s a way to expand.”  

Around the Environment:  

Join the Conversation


  1. Writing an article about beach replenishment or other efforts to “save” the beach without discussing sea level rise due to global warming is irresponsible. What is the point of spending tens of millions of dollars on building beaches that will become permanently submerged in the near future? Why? So current businesses can keep making money off of it? The money should be spent on retreating from the beach in a managed and thoughtful to adapt the future coastline.

  2. I have been told that there is enough sand and sediment in Imperial Beach and Border Field state park to supply all of north county. Can you look in to why that sand is not being used?

Leave a comment
We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.