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On the BEACH : Shifting Sands, Foul Water and Other Man-Made Follies Threaten Our Coast

June 24, 1990|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is a free-lance writer. His last story for this magazine was "O, Happy Days! When We Were Very Young."

Fortunately, there is plenty of sand very near the beaches--under water. "Offshore sources are astronomical," says Dick McCarthy, staff geologist of the Coastal Commission. "They represent millions of years of deposit. We won't have to worry about depleting them for quite a while. However, there are conflicts to consider. Dredging can conflict with fishing, for instance. And you have to make sure that when you dredge some sand and take it up on shore, it doesn't flow back into the hole you just dug." In addition, sand can't be dumped on certain beaches in summer because it interferes with grunion mating.

So the people who manage the coast must continue to find the right balance between playing with natural forces and knowing when to leave well enough alone.

And beach users, surfers to be specific, have their own ideas about how to tinker with the beaches. Robert "Bird Legs" Caughlan, director of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group that lobbies for better surfing conditions up and down the coast, recounts one recent victory: stopping the Army Corps of Engineers from building a 1,000-foot breakwater north of Bolsa Chica Beach that would have degraded the waves at the popular Orange County surfing site. Caughlan says Surfrider isn't against development per se. "We realize that some of the best waves were made by mistake, not design, when a breakwater was built." The Wedge, the famous surfing spot in Newport Beach, exists because of a breakwater.

Improve Mother Nature? Caughlan and his colleagues think it's possible. They're currently cooperating with the Corps to manufacture better surf off Newport Beach. The plan is to use tons of sand that will be dredged when the Corps cleans and realigns the mouth of the Santa Ana River next spring. "They have to put the sand somewhere," says foundation associate director Dave Skelly. "We're looking at them putting it offshore to create a sand reef instead of just dumping it on the beach. We want to make little sand jetties that can do two things, prevent erosion and create good waves. If it's put off shore the right way, it can create longer waves, more peaks."

As with most everything else in Southern California, when it comes to waves and sand, few are ever satisfied with the status quo. So while we're well aware that human interference can be detrimental to our beaches, we're also probably destined to repeat our mistakes.

SOBERING thought. But here's one that's even more sobering. I spent all those summers at the beach, barbecuing myself brown in the sun, dodging flying surfboards in the purl and all that, and the only thing I ever imagined could bring it to an end was school.

Finally, though, I graduated from school. I went to work. I became a grown-up who could make all his own decisions and presumably spend every spare moment self-barbecuing and surfboard-dodging from then on out.

And so? So I can't remember the last time I tap-danced barefoot across a blazing parking lot with a towel in my hand. I've scarcely been to the beach since--well, since Sea 'n Ski was the only totally cool suntan lotion. Without noticing it, I turned into a back-yard partier just like my folks.

I refuse to see this as a sign of middle age, though. I choose to see it as my own contribution to the beach: one less clown angling for a parking spot. Don't bother to thank me.

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