Twenty years ago, San Clemente's marine safety building stood flush with the sand, its rock-and-concrete clock tower overlooking the blue Pacific in the distance.
But steady sand erosion has taken a dramatic toll, reducing the width of the beach by half and exposing the wood pilings that serve as a foundation for the lifeguard headquarters. Today, waves pound just 30 feet from the structure, and a rusting sea wall prevents more sand from slipping away.
The situation is so dire that city officials are faced with the prospect of moving the building and several other beach structures farther inland, installing more sea walls or trucking in tons of sand to rebuild the disappearing coastline.
All the options are costly--and some fear time is running out. The fierce El Nino storms over the last two decades washed away large portions of the beach, and officials believe another massive storm could seriously undermine the structures.
"I would say in five years if erosion continues at the rate it's going, 50% of the structures could be threatened," said Bill Humphreys, the city's marine safety captain.
The curving beach at the south end of Orange County is a popular weekend summer destination, with motels and apartment buildings set against a coastal bluff. But San Clemente has one of the worst beach erosion problems in the region, in large part because of its location.
Huntington and Newport beaches get large deposits of sand from the Santa Ana River. Laguna Beach is made up of a number of pockets or coves whose sand gets replenished by natural erosion of the nearby bluffs. Beach erosion in Dana Point is somewhat limited by the marina and large harbor sea wall.
San Clemente's City Beach, however, lacks this protection and has suffered for years. Longtime residents said they've watched helplessly as swaths of the coastline disappear before their eyes each year.
Sand Once Surrounded Building's Deck
Humphreys can remember when sand surrounded the deck of the marine safety building. Today, erosion has caused a five-foot gap between the deck and the sand.
The city has tried to slow erosion with the steel wall. But it's been replaced twice because of rust damage at a cost of about $250,000 each time.
City officials are trying to decide on a long-term solution.
One idea is to move the lifeguard headquarters as well as some restrooms and a snack bar farther up the shore.
But relocating the buildings immediately runs up against the problem of space: There's none to spare. Just a few feet beyond the narrow beach are railroad tracks used by Metrolink and Amtrak trains.
Moving the building beyond the railroad right-of-way would mean that every time someone wanted one of those famous burgers from the T-Street concession, they'd have to cross the tracks. Every time someone had to go to the bathroom, they'd have to cross the tracks.
The speeding trains are already considered a safety issue, and officials are wary of creating more pedestrian traffic.
They also are wary of moving the marine safety building so far from the beach.
"We always want to have a presence of marine headquarters on the beach," Humphreys said. "The question is how much you can accommodate given the limited footprint available."
Officials said there has been some discussion of relocating the safety headquarters to a nearby pier. But that's not an ideal location for rescues, and getting vehicles in and out would be a problem.
The most viable option is sand replenishment. It's also the costliest. The first round of sand replenishment would cost about $5 million. The city said the process would have to be repeated every three years to make a lasting difference.
Seal Beach is one of the region's few cities with an ongoing replenishment program. When the Navy built its weapons station there in the 1940s, it erected a large jetty that sucks sand from the local beach. The Navy agreed to replenish the sand periodically and hauls tons of it from the desert on trains every few years.
Natural Replenishment to Be Focus of Study
Gov. Gray Davis announced $10 million in grants to replenish the state's eroding public beaches several months ago, including nearly $4.7 million for the Orange County coastline.
Much of the grant will be used to study natural replenishment, and the goal is to eventually decrease costly artificial sand replacement projects like the type San Clemente would benefit from.
Although replenishment is the most attractive option, officials said, its cost would require federal and state assistance. Because the power crisis has weakened the economic condition of the state, officials question whether the state will provide significant help.
"There are very few options," said Bill Hart, chairman of the city's Coastal Advisory Commission, appointed by the city to come up with a policy to solve the problem.