Bluffs Stabilization: Short Term / Long Term

Sometimes short-term damage is unavoidable to achieve long term benefit. When someone has a heart attack, it may be necessary to cut open their chest — a damaging process — to save their life. To restore our beautiful lagoon, heavy construction equipment dredged and reshaped the wetlands, damaging or removing existing habitat, in order to achieve the long-term benefits of a full restoration of the lagoon.


So it is with the rails on the bluff. Interim beach and bluff damage is necessary to achieve the long-term benefit of relocating the rails to return them to a natural state for the long term. This is why the Coastal Commission and the Surfrider Foundation, both staunch opponents of seawalls, approved the SANDAG Bluff Stabilization Project 5 with its interim seawalls—the Commission with a remarkable 9-0 vote.


Driving realities behind this decision were 4 key factors: 1) the rail has to be relocated inland, but that might take 30 years; 2) the rail has to be made safe until relocation, and that requires temporary seawalls and upper bluff soldier piles and drainage improvements, as the least environmentally damaging alternative; 3) interim seawalls must be removed in 30 years or upon rail relocation, whichever occurs first, and the bluff and beach returned to it natural condition; and 4) immediate mitigation is needed in the form of at least one safe and legal rail crossing including access down the bluff to the beach at either 7th or 11th street, an improved one mile walking trail on the east of the rail line, improved access at the street ends, drainage improvements, wetlands mitigation, city and public participation in design of the details of the walking trails and beach access, and more. 


In short, the Commission, Surfrider Foundation, SANDAG, and the many resources agencies and experts who reviewed the project all concluded that approval of this project, with significant mitigation measures, was the best available option. We should thank them. The interim damage from seawalls is undeniable. But the option of no seawalls would leave the rail at unacceptable risk of collapse, putting lives at risk as the 60+ trains per day traverse the eroding bluffs. Or, with no seawalls, the bluff could have been stabilized with 20 to 30 foot high upper bluff walls and many more non-removable soldier piles, all of which would be visible, ugly, and permanent (with the soldier piles becoming visible as the bluff erodes). Because of the poor decision made in the early 1900s to locate the train on the bluff, we find ourselves in this situation. All we can do is choose the best available option. That is exactly what the Coastal Commission did.