Encinitas officials beef up defenses against El Nino


With weather forecasters predicting a severe El Niño weather system this winter, public safety officials in Encinitas and the rest of San Diego County are gearing up. And they’re asking residents to follow suit.

An El Niño potentially on a par with or even stronger than the extreme 1982-83 and 1997-98 events is building, increasing the likelihood of flooding, bluff collapses and powerful waves this winter.

Local lifeguards are preparing with extra training.

Notably, Encinitas lifeguards will soon take out wave runners and simulate rescues in giant surf — a tricky undertaking that’s all about timing and taking channels where waves aren’t breaking as intensely.

“Swami’s is North County’s big-wave spot, so we want to be ready for that,” Encinitas lifeguard Capt. Larry Giles said. He added lifeguards haven’t done high-surf training in a while, since the last big El Niño was during the 1997-1998 winter.

“You typically don’t get huge waves until El Niño comes along,” Giles said.

A Sheriff’s ASTREA helicopter team on Sept. 24 touched down at the Moonlight Beach parking lot to brush up on training and best practices with local lifeguards.

“Part of our discussion was protocols for when lifeguards should call ASTREA,” Giles said. “If we have flooding, for example, and someone actually goes off the road in their vehicle into a creek, a helicopter might be the best tool for getting the person out.”

A sample of the damage caused by the significant 1982-83 El Niño in Encinitas: flooding at homes and on arterial roads. Beach stairs and other infrastructure were wiped out, with Grandview Beach, Beacon’s Beach and Stone Steps being hit especially hard. Plus, a winter swell was powerful enough to sweep a wooden lifeguard tower onto the middle of Coast Highway 101 in Cardiff, Giles said.

“Restaurant Row” in Cardiff has been especially vulnerable to flooding in the past, so sandbags will be piled up when forecasts call for a combination of big waves and extreme tides. In these instances, restaurants will also be asked to put up their plywood storm shutters.

And safety officials will closely monitor Coast Highway 101 in Cardiff, in case they need to close it because of waves flinging rocks onto the road — or worse, if water topples onto it.

Other beach areas are a concern as well.

The city is putting together a GIS map of Encinitas coastline areas that are more susceptible to bluff failures by taking data showing the location of seawalls and where past bluff failures have occurred, said Katherine Weldon, the city’s shoreline preservation manager. Sandbags or rocks could be placed in front of those vulnerable sections on a temporary basis.

“We’re trying to identify the problem, and then we’ll talk with the coastal commission about temporary engineering solutions,” Weldon said.

The problems associated with El Niño could extend beyond winter; the events are known to cause long-term coastal erosion.

Encinitas and Solana Beach have long been working on a plan to reverse erosion by regularly piping offshore sand onto beaches. It remains to be seen whether the project wins federal funding, a necessity for it to move forward.

In the near term, Giles said more lifeguards will be on hand this winter to keep an eye on beaches.

The Encinitas City Council recently beefed up lifeguard staffing year-round, citing more people flocking to the coast during all seasons. That includes extra coverage at Swami’s Beach, which was previously unstaffed during weekends from October through April.

And the annual sand berm built at Moonlight Beach, which protects the main lifeguard tower and other infrastructure from wave energy, will be denser this year.

While it might not be as exciting as surf rescue training, the city this year is aggressively cleaning out storm drains and retention basins, reducing the chance of problems on flood-prone streets like Lone Jack Road in Olivenhain.

It’s also up to residents to prepare for El Niño.

Fire Battalion Chief Mike Spaulding encouraged residents to stormproof their homes, from removing mulch to installing rain gutters where necessary. That way, residents can protect their homes — and ease the burden on public safety officials, particularly in the event of an emergency.

“In a large storm event, we could have to go from one call to the next,” Spaulding said. “And we don’t want to be stuck on something that could have been self-mitigated.”

To help residents safeguard their homes, the city will stock more sandbags this winter than normal. Residents can pick up to 10 sandbags per household, while supplies last, from the Public Works Department at 160 Calle Magdalena. Businesses like Home Depot and Crown Ace Hardware also sell sandbags.

“It’s up to everyone to prepare,” he said.