Officials celebrate ‘living shoreline’ project’s conclusion

Ribbon-cutting at the Cardiff State Beach Living Shoreline Project Dedication Ceremony.
(Nature Collective)

As rain started falling and storm-whipped waves pounded San Elijo State Beach Wednesday morning, May 22, city and state officials celebrated the conclusion of construction on the county’s first “living shoreline” dune system.

The project enhances a half-mile of coastline, creating a network of erodible sand dunes to protect Restaurant Row’s portion of Coast Highway 101 and add new nesting space for endangered birds, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear told the crowd of dignitaries huddling under rain-spattered, pop-up tents.

Pedestrians will find a new, half-mile walkway parallel to the coastal highway, but set back from it so they don’t have to dodge cars. Wheelchair users will gain a special rubberized strip that gives them direct access to the beach at the project’s north end. And, in addition to all that, the sand for the dune system was close at hand, Blakespear stressed.

All the sand for the project -- 30,000 cubic yards, or enough to fill 6 million, one-gallon buckets -- came from a San Elijo Lagoon basin dredging project right next door, she noted.

Despite the wet weather, more than 60 people representing everyone from the state Parks system to the Nature Collective -- the new name for the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy -- attended Wednesday’s event.

Megan Cooper, a regional manager for the state Coastal Conservancy, told the crowd that the project was a truly innovative way to protect both the highway, which has had storm-damage problems in the past, and one of the area’s “beloved outdoor play spaces.” Many coastal cities are looking to protect their coastlines in the face of rising seas and “increasingly unpredictable weather,” she said.

“But, rather than put up sea walls or impassable riprap, the city of Encinitas has chosen an approach that will both defend this stretch of coast and expand the natural resources of this place,” Cooper said.

The dunes may look like simple piles of sand, but they’re actually two projects in one, she said. Beneath the sandy hummocks are riprap and cobblestones, substances that were already in the area before the project began. They will be very effective at blocking coastal erosion, while the sandy dunes, which have been planted with native species, provide wildlife habitat.

“Combined, these two elements offer that surety of traditional hardened shorelines with the ecological benefits of a wild coast,” she said.

After the officials concluded their remarks, the rain stopped and state Coastal Commission project manager Evyan Sloane led the first tour of the area. Sloane said they used decomposed granite for the new pedestrian pathway, so that if the dunes are overtopped by big waves, fixing erosion of the pathway will be relatively easy.

The post and rope fencing along the area will remain in place, but there’s currently an extra set of slat-board-style fencing that will later be removed after the dune system is more established, she said. A second set of plantings in the dune system is set for next spring, she added.

“Living Shoreline” systems are growing in popularity on the East Coast, but this is the first one in San Diego County and one of the first in California, officials said. It’s expected to provide protection to the highway for several decades.

The project’s $2.5 million price tag was paid for by the state Coastal Conservancy, the Ocean Protection Council, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the San Diego Association of Governments.

— Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune