A line has been drawn in the sand in Laguna Beach.
There’s been a growing debate over whether or not beachgoers should be allowed to dig out the sand berm at Aliso Beach.
It’s a discussion that’s been ongoing since the city acquired control of all south Laguna beaches from the county on March 1.
Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Collegiate News Service, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact email@example.com.
Aliso Beach is a popular spot among skimboarders and other beachgoers for its naturally occurring berm, a raised mound of sand that separates the water of Aliso Creek from the ocean. The section of sand prevents the two water sources from connecting.
The berm can be breached naturally during storms. But at Aliso Beach, visitors are digging out areas of the sand to create a standing wave for skimboarding.
When the berm is dug out and water flows through, it creates a continuous standing wave and pristine skimboarding conditions.
But a coalition of environmentalists argues that the digging allows polluted runoff from the creek to flow into the ocean, which they argue could disturb wildlife populations.
There are already signs posted by the city asking residents to leave the berm alone because of the runoff.
But some beachgoers disagree.
They believe that the berm causes the creek water to stagnate, increasing levels of harmful bacteria.
Berm-digging supporters also cite countywide reports that indicate berm breaching is a natural process that does not impact water quality.
The city council is set to discuss the berm in more detail in the new year.
But last month, the council voted to approve a $35,000 camera and pole at Aliso Beach to observe the berm and fire pits.
Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow said at that Oct. 24 meeting that the camera will be used as needed or as any issues arise. The new camera will replace a previous one that was operated by county officials and removed earlier this year.
To see the full council deliberations on the issue, go here.
Here’s the city staff report.
The Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, an organization focused on maintaining the marine environment of Laguna Beach, is a vocal group against digging up the berm.
Mike Beanan, the organization’s co-founder, claims that the sand berm — when intact — blocks inland runoff, water used in irrigation and pesticides from flowing into the ocean.
He said the berm once functioned as a nursery for fish such as the Tidewater Goby, a species that was listed as endangered in 1994.
Beanan said that in order to protect water quality, fish and wetland habitats, the berm must only be breached naturally, such as during a series of heavy rains.
Other Laguna Beach locals like Greg Viviani think it’s fine to dig out the sand berm. He’s a videographer and content creator who films Aliso Beach skimboarders and ocean landscapes.
Viviani has amassed over 2,500 signatures urging the city council to deny moving forward with a breaching ban and allow visitors to dig up the berm.
He said the issue goes beyond skimboarding fun. He’s also alarmed by the possible environmental impacts of leaving the berm intact for long periods of time.
Viviani said that waiting for the berm to breach naturally allows runoff to become stagnant, which amasses bacteria, draws in mosquitoes and forces water flow toward beachside homes and walking paths.
This water enters the ocean when breached naturally, bringing with it more bacteria than if the berm was broken three to four times a week, he said.
“We aren’t doing this just for fun,” Viviani said. “We are doing this so [the berm] won’t flood homes, so it won’t clog pedestrian tunnels, so it won’t create stagnant water. We need to keep this thing flowing.”
According to a 2021 technical report produced by Orange County Parks and Public Service, there is no evidence that berm breaching causes unsafe conditions in water quality.
“There is no denying that human intervention can be a catalyst for breaching of the berm,” the report reads. “However, this activity… simply speeds up the inevitable breaching that occurs due to tidal action and erosion.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Tracy Wood Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
Since you’ve made it this far,
You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.