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Sand Slowly Disappearing From L.A.-Area Shoreline

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Malibu, Las Tunas State Beach has virtually disappeared. Even at low tide the waves wash over what little sand is left and break on a rocky shoreline.

At the other end of Los Angeles County, Cabrillo Beach near San Pedro is disappearing.

In between, at Redondo Beach, the sea sometimes laps at pilings supporting a bathroom on the Strand near Sapphire Street. Only a sliver of sand is left in front.

Waves of change are hammering away at Los Angeles-area beaches, the signature of the Southern California lifestyle. Erosion, relentless and insistent, is exacting a dramatic toll--in sand. And, unlike years gone by, there’s no more sand readily at hand to replace what the wind and sea keep washing away from the county’s 31 miles of sandy shore.

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Almost all those miles--from Pacific Palisades south--are either man-made, as in the case of Cabrillo, or artificial, enhanced with tons of sand scooped from massive oceanside construction projects that date to the 1930s--primarily from improvements to the Hyperion sewage treatment facility in El Segundo and secondarily from the construction of Marina del Rey, the largest man-made small-craft harbor in the world.

The supply of sand from those sources and others has finally run out, according to state and local officials, as well as environmentalists and others who monitor conditions along the coast.

In recent years, there has been no money in the county budget to “nourish” the beaches--that is, to dredge sand from underwater or bring it in from somewhere else onshore. Literally, not a cent could be spared in the fiscal 1998 Department of Beaches and Harbors budget.

The federal government, meanwhile, has shown little interest in Los Angeles’ beaches.

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So as the first signs of real trouble manifest themselves on the area’s beaches, the question looms: What, if anything, is going to be done about it?

Asks Reinhard E. Flick, a Scripps Institution researcher and oceanographer for the state Department of Boating and Waterways: “How do we assemble the political and social will--and, as importantly, the money--to continue to be able to supply those beaches with sand?”

Beaches as Infrastructure

Among planners nationwide, a new school of thought is slowly emerging, one with significant policy implications because it views beaches not as play toys but as infrastructure akin to highways, bridges, ports and airports.

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“The basic story,” said Gregory Woodell, the Los Angeles-based president of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Assn., “is that if society wants to have beaches any more, we have to budget and renourish them periodically. This is not the way it was. This is new. This is the way it is now. It’s just now hitting us in the face.”

Building consensus, however, promises to be challenging.

As a starting point, beach projects typically require cooperation at four levels of bureaucracy--federal, state, county and city.

In the Los Angeles area, for instance, leaders often look first to the federal government--in particular, to the Army Corps of Engineers--for funds. The state, meanwhile, owns several beaches, such as Dockweiler State Beach, near Los Angeles International Airport.

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The county maintains most of the beaches. Santa Monica grooms its own shoreline but still relies on county lifeguards. Hermosa Beach, meanwhile, owns its beach but relies on the county for maintenance as well as lifeguards.

The tangled maze of jurisdictions, according to Woodell and other beach advocates, underscores the scope of the challenge:

* First is convincing legislators in landlocked Sacramento and in Washington that the time has come to pay attention to the beaches.

Though it may seem obvious, said Howard Marlowe, president of the Washington-based American Coastal Coalition, beaches offer economic, environmental and recreational value. Which value matters most depends on the beach.

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Las Tunas, for example, helps protect Pacific Coast Highway from battering winter storms.

The beaches at Santa Monica and Venice are major tourist draws; 12.8 million people flocked to Santa Monica State Beach last year and 9.3 million came to see the wacky and weird on display in Venice, according to county lifeguard estimates.

Statewide, according to a San Francisco State University report, beaches are California’s No. 1 tourist and recreational attraction--the source of 500,000 jobs and $1.1 billion in state tax revenue.

* Second is allocating sand dollars. The cost of beach projects usually runs into the millions. Traditionally, funds have been given out on a project-by-project basis. “Which is a crisis-by-crisis basis,” Marlowe said.

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* Third is coming up with innovative sources of sand.

Last year in San Diego County, where several beaches from Del Mar north to Oceanside are so scoured of sand that they could serve as rock quarries, officials tried something radical--trading trash for sand.

For a month, trash from Oceanside was trucked to a landfill in La Paz County, Ariz.; on the way back, the trucks were packed with desert sand, which was dumped onto the beach.

The Arizona sand, which comes from an ancient seabed, proved plenty clean. But Oceanside didn’t export enough garbage--without more from surrounding communities--to make the deal work economically.

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LAX Expansion May Offer Needed Source

In the beach towns that dot Santa Monica Bay, some city officials are covetously eyeing sand that might be unearthed if Los Angeles International Airport expands--though these officials also must balance sentiment in the beach cities against airport expansion.

* Finally, a commonplace political reality is that it’s just plain difficult to build consensus when disaster doesn’t seem imminent. And it’s still quite possible to take out the convertible, put the top down and revel in the glory of a broad expanse of sparkling white sand at Zuma Beach Park in Malibu, at Will Rogers by the Palisades, at Santa Monica and Venice beaches and on through Dockweiler down to Manhattan and Hermosa beaches in the South Bay.

Appearances, however, really can be deceiving. One recent afternoon in front of the lifeguard operations tower at Zuma, there was barely enough sand to park two pickup trucks end to end.

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During the summer, the ocean will deposit more sand ashore, widening Zuma and some other beaches as part of the endless cycle of the sea. But, warns Zuma-based Lt. Steve Wood, a county lifeguard since 1964, “If we have another El Nino season, we could have serious--and I mean serious--beach erosion problems.”

Historically, most area beaches were relatively narrow and rocky. But at some beaches sand was so abundant it was considered a nuisance. In the 1920s, there was so much beautiful, fine-grained white sand on Manhattan Beach that a construction company was happy to ship it to Hawaii, where it was spread across Waikiki Beach.

Concrete Structures Alter Natural Course

The most dramatic change to hit the beaches along Santa Monica Bay dates to 1938. That year, widespread flooding hit Southern California, killing 87 people and causing $78 million in damage. Never again, local and federal officials vowed when the water receded, promptly setting out to build the elaborate system of concrete flood-control channels, dams and catchment basins that mark today’s landscape.

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The concrete more or less does what it is supposed to do--protect life and property. What it also does, however, is trap sediment heading to the ocean from the mountains.

That sediment is actually sand in the making. And the concrete channels have forever altered the natural course of events--what geologists call the sand transport system, down the mountains via creeks and rivers to the sea--that used to supply sand to the beaches.

Thus the need for new sources of sand--and a massive supply of sand at that.

The waves keep rolling in, day and night, night and day--and waves move the sand on, off and around the beach.

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Because waves typically break in at an angle but fall straight back, grains of sand migrate in a zigzag fashion along the beach, sometimes north, sometimes south, depending on winds and currents.

Over the long haul, according to scientific studies, the sand in the northern part of the bay tends to move south, toward Redondo Beach; to the south, the curvature of the coast somehow induces a drift to the north, again toward Redondo Beach.

A series of man-made structures along the coast--last year, the Department of Beaches and Harbors fixed the count at 19 groins, six piers, five breakwaters and five revetments--serves to slow the sand migration and, to some extent, to compartmentalize it between structures.

But vast volumes of sand do keep moving--toward Redondo and, in particular, toward an undersea canyon near the beach. The head of the canyon is only about 200 yards offshore. Sand falls in, and even the most energetic waves can’t lift it back out. Another underwater canyon is located near Cabrillo Beach--with the same result, the loss of sand into the ocean depths.

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For renourishing Redondo Beach now, said Dean Smith, executive assistant to the director at the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, the hope is for a major dredging project in Marina del Rey next year--670,000 cubic yards. Of that total, however, only 240,000 cubic yards would be usable; the rest, he said, is too fine-grained or, more likely, too contaminated.

How to get the sand to Redondo Beach is unclear. The projected cost is $8 million; the Redondo part would cost $2 million. Financing prospects, he said, are uncertain.

It may yet take many years for some of the other wide and inviting beaches along the bay to give way to the sea. But erosion is an inexorable force; political and budgetary will is not.

Relaxing in the sun at Las Tunas one recent morning, Matthew Sand, 29, a visitor from Brooklyn, looked up from the book he was reading, surveyed the rocky scene and declared: “You cannot play beach volleyball on this. This is a problem. Definitely a problem.”

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