As a section of Orange County’s coastal rail line threatens to sink into the sea, local and federal officials are grappling with how best to maintain it – by armoring it with truckloads of sand, or moving sections of the train corridor itself.

A publicized train ride last week between a federal rail administrator and Congressman Mike Levin put these issues into focus, with the announcement of requests for federal funding in the coming days for rail relocation studies, as well as a new county task force studying issues like beach sand replenishment. 

And at a Friday news conference in the rain, wind and cold, officials announced one of its first members:

UCI civil engineering professor Brett Sanders, a coastal erosion and flooding expert, who has been sounding the alarm about the coastline’s railroad threats which halted passenger service since September of last year.

The task force was announced by OC Supervisor Katrina Foley, whose district represents coastal cities, at a Friday news conference alongside Congressman Levin, San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan, and Federal Rail Administrator Amit Bose. 

It’s expected to be an “internal advisory” body in nature, feeding Foley coastal erosion policy ideas to present to her colleagues for consideration at meetings, she said in a Friday text message.

“We will host at least one public presentation and workshop about the recommendations prior to bringing to [the Board of Supervisors] for board adoption,” said Foley, who added that the goal is to start by June with no more than seven members. 

In an interview after Thursday’s news conference, Sanders said one of his first priorities is “to come up with a sand budget for the county.”

He said sand replenishment is the coastline’s strongest safeguard against wearing away under waves, and despite applauding “recent efforts to bring sand to this coast” at the news conference, he said it’s “not enough.”

“Equally important for the long term would be efforts to increase the natural supply of sand through watershed management activities,” Sanders said at the news conference.

Experts have said the urbanization of Orange County has all but cut beaches off from the sand supply that kept them in shape, through a flood control infrastructure designed to hold sediment in place, rather than let it flow out to feed the shoreline. 

“We need to know, what are the sources of sand and sediment around the county?” Sanders said after the news conference. “And which ones are making it to the coast, which ones aren’t? Could that really help meet the shortfall that we’re seeing in the coast?” 

He added: “In what ways can we adapt existing sand management practices that the county is using to try to improve the needs along the coast and also meet the needs for flood control?”

Foley’s announcement came the same day of a publicized boarding of the coastal route in San Diego by Congressman Levin and Federal Rail Administrator Bose, who first surveyed a stretch of threatened tracks atop a sensitive bluff in Del Mar. 

Then, in San Clemente, they observed repair work along 700 feet of tracks facing the threat of a landslide on one side and sand loss on the other. 

The tracks moved more than two feet between 2021 and 2022, and halted service on the route since September, with the Orange County Transportation Authority working since October to halt the bedrock movement. 

All Metrolink and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner service is now set to resume this upcoming Monday between Orange County and San Diego.

“In the coming days I will be formally submitting federal community project requests for $4 million dollars to support the Orange County Transportation Authority in conducting a study for the rail relocation in Orange County spanning 11 miles,” Levin said at the news conference. 

The Federal Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 secured about $9.3 million for San Clemente officials’ decades-long efforts to replenish 250,000 cubic yards of sand on a 3,400-foot long stretch from Linda Lane to South T-Street.

The actual sand replenishment is expected to begin in Fall of 2023. 

Levin called on Congress to go further.

“There’s simply too much at stake,” he told reporters on Friday. “We must have more federal investment.”

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