"The sands of the sea--who can number them?"
--Ecclesiastes Since before the abacus, philosophers have puzzled over how much sand is on the beach. Today, in attempts to halt beach erosion, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are compiling at least a partial answer.
In September, officials launched a $400,000, state-funded study to tally the tonnage of sand piled up near harbors and offshore basins, measure its coarseness and figure how much is needed to replenish badly eroded beaches like Oxnard Shores and Faria.
It is not an idle quest. Capricious tides and shifting sands have caused millions of dollars in damage along Ventura's coast over the years, sweeping away piers, homes and roads. And civic leaders aren't anxious to watch history repeat itself.
Buried under the dunes along Pierpont Beach, for instance, is a 40-foot-wide road called Shore Drive that once stretched from San Pedro Street near San Buenaventura State Beach down to Ventura Harbor.
Shore Drive, as its name suggests, was once the promenade for a "resort-type area" along with some homes and the Pierpont Pier, says Barbara Kam, Ventura's city clerk.
But that was before severe storms clobbered Ventura's coast in the 1930s. They smashed the pier at the end of Seaward Avenue, destroyed the buildings and buried Shore Drive under tons of sand. Today, Pierpont's alley-like streets come to an unexpected dead-end at the sand dunes.
Old-timers in Ventura say that in the 1930s, many Pierpont homeowners dealt with erosion by simply hauling their homes or rebuilding them further inland. But that luxury isn't available today to residents of the Rincon, a handful of beach communities sandwiched along a crescent between the Pacific Ocean and Pacific Coast Highway just up the coast from Ventura.
"We have the highway behind us, and the ocean keeps taking land away in front of us," complained Lee M. Griswold, spokesman for the Faria Beach homeowners association. The group is embroiled in a lawsuit with the California Coastal Commission because some of its members put up an unauthorized breakwater of big rocks about 50 feet offshore. But desperation is a strong motivation.
"Whether we keep that sand there by dredging offshore . . . or putting up artificial reefs, we need something," Griswold said.
With shores from Point Conception to Point Mugu 100 miles down the coast eroding up to two feet each year, civic leaders agree. In 1985, they formed a joint city-county group called the Beach Erosion Authority for Control Operations and Nourishment, also called BEACON, to study "sand management" and come up with ways to replenish beaches.
BEACON includes representatives from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and from the coastal cities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Ventura, Oxnard and Port Hueneme. Members say the cooperative agreement is necessary because building seawalls and jetties in Santa Barbara affects the flow of sand as far down the coast as Point Mugu.
In addition, "we felt if we banded together, we'd be a much stronger lobbying force," said Gerry Nowak, deputy public works director for Ventura County. The 18-month study is their first attempt at doing just that.
Elusive as the concept of sand management might seem, coastal engineers regularly discuss it in accounting jargon, using terms like "sand budget" and "beach inventory." In efforts to relate the concept of erosion in visceral terms, engineers also reach for food imagery. Beaches are sand-starved. Shores require "beach nourishment."
A grain-by-grain inventory is not on BEACON's menu. But members say the sand-management study is a critical first step in developing a comprehensive plan to beef up beaches and slow erosion.
"Sand has become a scarce resource. . . . Over time, most of the homes along the coastline will be threatened," said James A. Bailard, an engineer who serves as BEACON's technical consultant.
Coastal geologists say the two counties have their hands full. In a preliminary BEACON report unveiled last week in Carpinteria, Bailard assessed the beach erosion as "quite serious" and said it would cost millions of dollars to correct.
The culprits: river dams that block the flow of sediment into the ocean, three man-made harbors that trap hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand each year while impeding its natural flow, and jetties that collect sand up the coast while starving beaches down the coast.
Gary Griggs, a professor of earth sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, traces erosion to two sources: rising sea levels worldwide due to melting polar ice caps and, until recently, an ignorance about the effect of man-made harbors and dams. Contraptions that jut into the ocean aren't the only causes of sand erosion, however. Inland river dams--meant to protect irrigation for farmers--also block sediment from flowing in a natural path to the sea.