State rolls out plans for San Elijo lifeguard tower


A new San Elijo lifeguard tower, complete with a remote-controlled camera, aims to provide a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding beaches.

To account for steady cliff erosion, plans call for the tower to be installed about 43 feet east of the blufftop, behind the interim tower. But state lifeguards would still have a great view of the area with the help of a camera system, officials said during an Oct. 17 community meeting at Cardiff Elementary on the tower.

“We moved back the tower because of erosion, losing a little bit of the sightlines,” said state Parks Superintendent Robin Greene. “So that we don’t have any blind spots, we’re going to have a camera system.”

She added that the tower would ensure that lifeguards “stay efficient.”

“Staffing costs money,” Greene said. “So to stay on budget, if I have one dispatcher at that one point, we can really observe a large beach section.”

The section includes Cardiff State Beach, Swami’s Beach, the San Elijo Campgrounds beach and the nearby San Elijo Lagoon inlet, known for fast-moving currents that carry swimmers out to sea.

Lifeguards operate cameras in Imperial Beach and Newport Beach to keep an eye on beachgoers, officials noted. And Surfline, a website for surfers to check the waves, employs similar technology.

Greene said that law enforcement wouldn’t use the camera to detect offshore criminal activity.

Federal government officials last year installed an anti-smuggling radar device — technology that’s much more sophisticated and expensive than plans for the camera system at San Elijo — in Carlsbad as a four-month-long experiment.

Powerful winter storms washed away the Cardiff bluff in 2010, leaving the original San Elijo lifeguard tower dangerously close to the edge. State lifeguards then vacated and dismantled that tower, which was built in 1966.

They replaced it with a temporary lookout that later had to come down because it didn’t have all the necessary permits. So last year, state lifeguards installed the interim tower atop a scaffolding system.

However, there’s little space for lifeguards and equipment in the structure, said lifeguard Supervisor Paul Andrus.

“This would allow them to operate appropriately,” he said. “Right now they’re doing the best with what they have.”

The new tower still has to get approval from the Encinitas Planning Commission, though a hearing date hasn’t been set. If all goes well for state lifeguards, construction is slated to start in late 2015.

Because of its central location for state lifeguard operations, the tower would serve as the command center for Torrey Pines State Beach, San Elijo State Beach and Carlsbad State Beach. Also, lifeguards at the tower could coordinate with local lifeguards, who cover much of North County, on operations.

“A dispatcher at the San Elijo tower will take calls and determine whether another unit or something else is necessary for situations,” Greene said.

Plans also show a lifeguard support facility farther back from the cliffs that would house marine vehicles and other equipment, allowing lifeguards to rush to emergencies in the area faster.

Outgoing Councilwoman Teresa Barth called the facility a “critically important public safety component.”

Barth noted that emergency response times for Moonlight Beach lifeguards have quickened ever since a new garage for emergency vessels and equipment opened last year there. Previously, that equipment was stationed a few miles from the coast.

The San Elijo project also includes redoing a driveway that leads to the beach. All told, the cost is estimated at $4 million, with most of the money coming from Proposition 12, a California bond passed in 2000 that provides funding for state park improvements.

Of the small group of residents who attended the meeting, only architect Dena Gillespie raised concerns about the tower. Gillespie said the tower seems sound from a safety standpoint, but added she’s not a fan of the architectural style.

She proposed revamping the design so that it’s “warmer” and better fits nearby Cardiff architecture.