Sands of Time Benefit Coast : Wave-Battered Beaches Recover From Storms

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians visiting beaches this weekend for the ceremonial start of the summer season should find the sandy shores of Los Angeles and Orange counties in their best shape since the disastrous winter storms of 1982 and 1983.

Three years of unusually mild winters have helped rejuvenate the wave-battered beaches by replacing tons of sand that had been stripped from shore during the series of violent storms.

About 75% of the depleted coastline has been replenished through the gradual movement of sand from the underwater drifts created during the storms, said Carl F. Enson, chief of planning for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Sand from the deposits several miles off the coast have helped expand the width of the beaches about 110 feet during the three years, he said.


“On the average, we lost about 150 feet of beach during the storms,” Enson said. “The beaches are still depleted. But they are in much better shape now than we expected after those storms. We have had a remarkable recovery.”

Wider beaches make life easier for lifeguards by providing enough room to keep both quiet sunbathers and rowdy Frisbee players happy, and they create a comfort zone for oceanfront residents and business owners who worry about winter waves pounding their real estate.

“The beaches are once again pretty much the way people remembered them before the storms,” said Lt. Tom Viren, a lifeguard at Santa Monica Beach. “We have gotten a replenishment of sand almost universally.”

Enson said planners expect the beaches to increase in width an additional 10 to 20 feet this summer from the movement of sand that becomes suspended in waves during the rough winter months and is then swept onshore in the summer. Aside from those seasonal changes, however, planners do not expect the beach to grow to its pre-1982 width.

“We don’t have a fresh inflow of sand that is going to replenish the beaches,” Enson said. “Some of the sand we lost got cast further off-coast into submarine canyons and is lost forever. Unless we have an abnormality in river discharges, we wouldn’t expect the beaches to build up.”

The harsh storms of February and March--the worst since the storms three years ago--eroded parts of the beaches but were not severe enough to undo years of replenishing, he said.

Beaches in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties have rebounded more quickly than those in Santa Barbara and San Diego counties because the Channel Islands and other offshore islands to the north serve as a natural barrier to large, damaging wind and waves from the northwest, Enson said.

In San Diego County, dredging efforts are already under way in the city harbor in Oceanside, and a federally funded bypass system is planned to pump sand out of the harbor and onto the beaches to help speed up recovery. That coastline faces a longer recuperation because of its exposure to the open ocean.

While the beaches in the Los Angeles area may be wider and healthier this year, they still will be crowded during the Memorial Day weekend, lifeguards and county beach officials said. Even in overcast and cool weather, hundreds of thousands of beachgoers take advantage of the three-day weekend, they said.

But on a mild, hazy Saturday, lifeguards estimated that a mere 425,000 went to Los Angeles beaches. “It is ghost town. Where is everybody?” wondered Tom Overmire, a lifeguard dispatcher at the central L.A. lifeguard station on the Santa Monica Pier. Overmire said crowds were “probably a third of what we had last year,” although South Bay beaches reported sizable crowds.

Aside from regular warnings about avoiding riptides, keeping alcoholic beverages off the beach and using plenty of sunscreen, lifeguards said beachgoers during the Memorial Day holiday should make certain the nearest lifeguard station is manned before plunging into the ocean.

More than 200 lifeguards are scheduled to be on duty over the weekend, but numerous stations will be closed, in part because summer help is difficult to find on the holiday weekend, lifeguards said.

“A lot of the seasonal staff are teachers and students, and they want to have a day off,” said Capt. Steve Voorhees, who works at the lifeguard headquarters in Hermosa Beach. “There is a possibility that because there is still snow in the Sierra, we might not have all the staff available to us. They are an athletic bunch, so they might be at Mammoth.”

Swimmers might want to think twice about taking the big plunge, anyway, several lifeguards said. Water temperatures Saturday ranged between 60 and 65 degrees--about 5 to 10 degrees cooler than it is later in the summer.