OCTA's recently expanded seawall makes erosion worse in South San Clemente where the beach has all but disappeared. Credit: Cameron Cosgrove

San Clemente beaches are shrinking — especially just north of the Cottons surf break to Cypress Shores HOA, where up to 26,000 tons of boulders have been sitting on public land and eroding the beach.

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), is the county transportation planning commission, responsible for funding and implementing transit projects. After a series of several erosion episodes near Cypress Shores, OCTA placed an enormous pile of boulders on the beach. Now they should be focusing on the long-term solution of relocating the vulnerable railway off the beach.

OCTA started placing boulders on the beach in the winter of 2021, when the action was permitted as an emergency measure to protect the tracks from storm surge that threatened service and the rail line. Now — four emergency permits and thousands of tons of additional placed rock later —  OCTA is assuming the same band-aid solutions will serve as a feasible strategy for keeping the railroad operating into the future. This shortsighted plan merely buys time for the rail to remain in place, and has enormous consequences for coastal access and resources in the meantime.

The emergency armoring and adjacent length of track are disrupting natural sand flow, causing sediment loss and the erosion of the beach. The resulting smaller (and in certain places, non-existent) beach means less public land to walk across and lay a towel on. Eroded beaches also threaten access – it is already no longer possible to cross the beach south to north from Trestles, or to jump out into the water on a high tide. Many of the beach breaks in front of the riprap are also swamped in refraction caused by the infrastructure. Studies have shown that natural sediment flow and sand supply is crucial to the surfability of waves at Trestles. 

Surf is hitting the tracks as OCTA adds more boulders to the beach to armor the tracks in January 2023. Credit: Rick Erkeneff

Relocating the rail off the coast presents a rare opportunity to preserve coastal access, the beach, and waves in San Clemente. Beaches all across our city are narrowing due to natural sand dynamics, damming and bluff armoring that impounds natural sand flow, and the shore’s unavoidable march inland caused by sea level rise. While many of these are daunting problems to manage, it is actually feasible for a public agency like OCTA to relocate public infrastructure inland in order to remove its threat to the public interest along the coast.

Such a move is necessary in the long-run for OCTA in order to preserve the viability of the line anyways  — with sea levels expected to rise up to another 3 feet in the next few decades, eventually no amount of rip rap will protect the rail line from storm damage and forced closures. The question is not whether the rail will be moved off the coast, it’s whether it will be relocated in time for the next generation to enjoy the beach that is currently fading away in front of it.

In San Diego, rail managers at SANDAG recently pondered a similar future with respect to sections of railroad running along coastal bluffs in Del Mar that are eroding at an accelerated pace due to sea level rise. Though moving a 5 miles stretch of railroad is currently projected to cost $3 billion, this was ultimately determined to be cheaper than the alternative of leaving the line in place. SANDAG has committed to relocating the train inland by 2035. 

OCTA should similarly commit to inland relocation of the rail in South San Clemente, and to take its riprap with it. In coming months, the California Coastal Commission will be reviewing OCTA’s application for a coastal development permit to instead retain the emergency armoring indefinitely. This is also an opportunity for locals to tell OCTA and the Coastal Commission that the railroad should be moved inland to restore the beach North of Trestles.

In the meantime, the public should be compensated for our loss of coastal access and public beach space. A living shoreline that builds resilience while keeping towel space, as well as a North-South access trail along the rail line, are reasonable mitigation options that could be established while longer term relocation is pursued.OCTA should have to study the effects of the riprap on Trestles over time.

Mandy Sackett is the Senior California Policy Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation. She works out of Surfrider’s HQ office in San Clemente, focused on protecting California’s coast from rising seas and  for all people.

Henry Chou is the Chair of the Surfrider Foundation South Orange County Chapter. The chapter has been fighting to protect South County’s coast for over 30 years, including the 15-year campaign to Save Trestles.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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