Commission Action Lines Up City's Adaptive El Nino Response
Benjamin Grant
January 14, 2016

The Ocean Beach Master Plan (OBMP) — the effort led by SPUR to plan for a changing San Francisco coastline — Got a major boost in November, when the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a proactive package of coastal protection measures put forward by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The OBMP lays out a long-term approach to severe coastal erosion that would protect threatened sewer infrastructure while also improving beach access, ecological function and the aesthetic character of the area. But so far, the plan has been a non-binding vision with limited standing in policy decisions.

The approval is significant because the last time the city sought a so-called Coastal Development Permit for actions related to erosion control, it was unanimously rejected by the Commission, leaving the city at odds with the Coastal Act.

In previous big storm seasons, the city was caught off guard and placed large piles of boulders, called revetments, to armor the beach and protect threatened sewer pipes. The revetments — which degrade access to the beach and can even accelerate erosion, causing the beach to become narrower — dismayed environmentalists and drew the ire of the California Coastal Commission. This year, with a plan in place, the PUC approached the Coastal Commission for approval of possible emergency measures in advance, looking to weather this winter with less intrusive measures.

When last year's El Nino fizzled, Ocean Beach and other eroding coastlines were (generally) spared the kind of punishing coastal storms that drove dramatic erosion in 1997 and 2010. Over the course of 2015, a strong El Nino pattern developed, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is putting the chances of it persisting through this winter at greater than 95 percent. Press has generally focused on the high likelihood of a badly needed wet winter in California, as well as the potential for flooding and mudslides as the parched and fire-ravaged state is subjected to downpours. Less has been written about the potential for coastal erosion that can accompany winter storms.

At Ocean Beach, the prospect of a stormy winter puts coastal managers on notice as they work to enact the new, more adaptive approach recommended by the Ocean Beach Master Plan. The city, working with SPUR and a consultant team, proposed a series of softer coastal protection measures, including sand placement and sandbags, should winter storms result in rapid erosion. Both measures have been used before but have never been cleared in advance as a toolkit for adaptive action. SPUR, the city, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Coastal Commission staff all agree that these softer measures are far preferable to the boulder revetments placed after previous storms. The permit enables managers to prepare proactively and act quickly, instead of waiting until damage is occurring and then using an emergency permit, the kind of reactive approach that was typical a decade ago.  

Because the existing revetments are not properly permitted, it was tough for the Coastal Commission to issue any permit to the city — even for actions they support – without resolving the compliance issues. The permit proposed for this winter tackles this issue by committing the city to a timetable for returning with a permit for a longer-term solution that was introduced in the Ocean Beach Master Plan but is still several years from being fully engineered. That approach would enable the removal of rock revetments, something everyone wants to see. Thus the current permit, which allows up to six years of adaptive measures, is tied to implementation of the long-tem OBMP – a major step forward. This permit puts the city and the Coastal Commission on a new, collaborative footing, ready to tackle the challenge of a changing coast in time for this year’s storm events and on track to implement the Master Plan.

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