Responding to complaints from surfers, environmentalists and the city of San Clemente, Metrolink officials have scaled back plans to fortify the wall of rocks along the city's beaches that protect train tracks from ocean flooding.
Instead, the agency will pile additional boulders at just four locations it says most need shoring up. The work is about 40% less than the rail agency had planned to do, Metrolink spokeswoman Sharon Gavin said.
The decision is a modest victory for the San Clemente chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, whose members staged a protest on the tracks March 17 when bulldozers were scheduled to begin dumping tons of boulders on the miles-long wall, known as riprap, at gaps and low points.
The rail agency backed off and met with Mayor Stephanie Dorey, who was among the protesters, as well as city staff and Surfrider representatives.
"We want to be responsive to the community, but at the same time we have to consider the safety of the right-of-way," Gavin said.
The boulders will be dumped starting Monday at Cotton's Point, the Linda Lane Park area, Mariposa Point and Calafia Beach. The work will be done between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when rail traffic won't hinder work. The $70,000 job is expected to last about three weeks.
The riprap covers nearly four of the city's five miles of coastline, where the tracks are just yards from the ocean. In years when there are particularly heavy storms, such as El Ninos, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, which operates Metrolink, makes routine repairs and adjustments to the wall. But with each maintenance program over the years, the wall has grown until it is more than 20 feet high and just as wide in many spots.
A broad group of environmentalists, citizens and city officials have long protested the riprap. They say it limits access to the beach, is unsightly and dangerous, and cuts through tidal habitats where shorebirds such as the California least tern and Western snowy plover are found. With just a few access points to the beach, surfers and sunbathers often risk injury by climbing over the jagged rocks.
"It's a nightmare for beach access," said Mark Babski, a Surfrider member and a leader of the recent protest.
While she understands the need for safety, Dorey said that whenever the rail agency schedules maintenance for the riprap, the work is done wholesale instead of assessing the need.
"I don't want to see trains flying off the track," the mayor said. "I think we need to protect the rail system. But ... we need to shore up when it's needed and where it's needed, not just routinely."
Metrolink's decision to limit the work is the latest development in an ongoing battle between the Surfrider Foundation and the rail agency. The environmental group and its allies want the rocks off the beach altogether, but Metrolink insists the rocks are the most effective way to protect the rail line. Metrolink has never before offered a compromise.
The rail agency previously said it would try placing the rocks in an interlocking fashion instead of dumping them atop the wall, but later said the method was "untested" and that the four locations needed the repair work done immediately and they could not afford to experiment. Gavin said the interlocking method is being considered for future work.
"The areas we are going to be dealing with are areas that really need this work right now," Gavin said.