Recently the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) issued an emergency order to stabilize the slope adjacent to its railroad tracks in South San Clemente. This decision is years in the making as the residents of the Cypress Shore community, my constituents, have devastatingly seen a popular public beach literally disappear before their eyes. Without sand to buffer wave action, the clay footing at the bottom of the slope, which is being pressured by an ancient landslide, has weakened, causing the slope to fail and the adjacent railroad tracks to slide toward the ocean.
A year ago, the warning signs that this slope stabilization project was needed began blinking bright red when the slope failed and the tracks moved almost 29 inches. Today the slope is continuously moving, almost imperceptibly but relentlessly seaward, every day. This is the inevitable effect of climate change, which has amplified wave action along our California coast.
OCTA’s emergency response, then and now, is to drop tons of large boulders (“rip rap”) onto the shoreline. As predicted by environmentalists, the steep rock wall, now comprising over 20,000 tons of rip rap, has only exacerbated the problem. As heavy surf hits the rocks, it drops downward and claws away any remaining sand, causing exponential beach loss. Now, faced with the need to shut down all passenger and nearly all freight service through the area, OCTA appears ready to take further action, hoping to prevent further damage by anchoring the slope in place.
It is apparent, however, that no amount of armoring or anchoring will stop the encroachment of Mother Nature on this pristine coastline. The fact is, development throughout Orange County and along our creek beds and bluffs has interrupted the natural sand replenishment process, causing rapidly increasing erosion along our entire sand-starved coastline. Without sand and retention measures to help it stay in place, it is only a matter of time before waves overcome the rail line placed precariously between the bluffs and ocean at Cotton’s Point.
This predicament is not the sole threat to the seven-mile coastal alignment. OCTA’s climate report identifies risks at the Mariposa Promontory; Capistrano Beach has lost significant beach and infrastructure; Doheny State Beach closed its south day use parking lot more than 3 years ago; and the entire South Orange County coastline is suffering from significant, escalating sand loss. As recently contemplated in the North San Diego County community of Del Mar, the only realistic while incredibly expensive solution is to move the tracks inland.
In addition to providing passenger and cargo service, this rail line currently serves as the only transportation corridor to and from the interior of the United States for U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. In addition, the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS), will one day require the line to move dangerous nuclear waste away from our community. It is simply unacceptable for the entire line to become inoperative, but erosive damage will only intensify as time goes on. A complete railway stoppage is our future if we don’t act now to explore relocating the coastal rail alignment.
That is why I join the many concerned residents, business groups, and local officials calling for the state government to begin plans to either divert the rail line inland or finalize construction of an alternate eastbound rail line from San Diego. This would not only ensure necessary rail service continues but also provide the opportunity to rebuild the beach at Cypress Shore.
History is replete with emergency actions taken after it’s too late. It will no doubt require significant effort and funding, but we still have time to prevent adding one more impending disaster to the list. If we only have the courage and foresight to act now.
Chris Duncan is the Mayor Pro Tem of San Clemente and a former Homeland Security attorney and federal prosecutor. He lives in the Talega neighborhood of San Clemente with his wife, Haley, a small business owner, and his three school-aged children.
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