California has approximately 648 well-known surf spots. The length and diversity of the coastline makes for a wide array of breaks with a full range of sizes and shapes. However, at several locations throughout the state, erosion, water quality concerns, development pressures, and other issues threaten to impact the quality of the surfing experience and in some cases, threaten the continued existence of the surf spot.
This section of the state (north of San Francisco) is relatively undeveloped. No major population centers exist on the immediate coast, so many of the problems associated with urban runoff, interruption of natural sand sources, and blockage of coastal access are less of a concern here than elsewhere in the state. Pollution sources tend to be major industries such as paper mills and the associated logging industry.
Erosion problems, with subsequent shoreline armoring and/or beach fill have been the main focus at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. A portion of the cliff and parking lot at Sloat Avenue started to erode and fall onto the beach. The Department of Public Works' response was to dump large boulders along a 100-yard stretch to act like a seawall. However, Surfrider's San Francisco chapter and other groups convinced the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to add sand to the area instead of more boulders. The city of San Francisco's attitude toward these surfing areas has improved. The Mayor formed a Task Force that includes two chapter members to look at issues affecting Ocean Beach.
In San Mateo County, over-development is jeopardizing surf spots at Half Moon Bay and the county beaches in general. Also in San Mateo County is Martins Beach, where for decades, the property owner allowed the public access to the beach and waves. That changed when the property was sold and the new owner denied the public access. Learn more about this and watch this video.
Many of the surf spots in Santa Cruz County are being threatened by erosion, which in turn is bringing increasing pressure to build seawalls and other structures. A particular area of concern is the Pleasure Point surfing area in Santa Cruz, where bluff erosion has already caused 41st Street to be converted from a 2-lane to a 1-lane road, and a large section of the bluff has now been armored. The Santa Cruz chapter has been heavily involved in this issue.
In San Luis Obispo County there are major access problems as approximately half of San Luis Obispo's 96-mile coastline is under private ownership or otherwise not open to the public. Water pollution from runoff and oil are affecting surf spots from Avila Beach to the Santa Maria River mouth, and shoreline structures (seawalls) threaten areas from Cayucos Pier to Chaney Avenue. San Luis Obispo County officials typically express more concern for generating tourist revenue from beachgoers than for protection of surfing and recognition of surfing as a recreational resource. A current water quality concern is high bacteria levels near Pismo Beach Pier. Surfrider's San Luis Obispo chapter is involved with this issue, as well as wastewater treatment upgrades in the Los Osos/Morro Bay area.
The city of Santa Barbara passed Measure B to provide an estimated $2 million for water quality improvement efforts. The Santa Barbara chapter was successful in forcing the removal of an "emergency" seawall at Goleta Beach. The Santa Barbara chapter has been working for 20 years to protect the Gaviota Coast from development and maintain this beautiful stretch of coastline for future generations. Rincon Point has long been impacted by outdated septic systems, but hopefully the houses there will soon be connected to a sewer system.
A great deal of attention has been focused on Surfer's Point, where the Ventura Chapter of Surfrider Foundation has worked since 1995 to implement a managed retreat plan to restore and protect the beach. Surfrider's plan, which is now being implemented, includes the relocation of the bike path and parking lot further inland, preservation of public beach access, restoration of the beach to natural conditions (including the replacement of the artificial fill under the retreat zone with cobble and sand), rebuilding the dunes and leaving a natural shoreline near the Ventura River mouth.
While general conditions at Southern California's surfing areas are fair to good, this area has been the center of many water quality issues. Orange County Sanitation District's 301(h) waiver, in effect since 1985 (making it the largest agency in nation using the waiver provision the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972), was noted above in the section on surf zone water quality. Although OCSD voted in July 2002 to abandon its waiver, it took another 10 years for treatment facilities to be built. There have been long-running water quality problems at local breaks such as Malibu's Surfrider Beach and near the Pico-Kentner storm drain in Santa Monica. Poor water quality at Malibu has been an issue for Surfrider's West LA/Malibu chapter since the chapter's founding. There were two pieces of good news at Malibu in 2010. First, both the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and the State Water Resources Control Board ordered Malibu businesses and homes in the civic center/lagoon/beach area to begin a phase out of onsite septic systems. Second, Surfrider Beach in Malibu was designated as the first World Surfing Reserve in the United States. In 2012, restoration of Malibu Lagoon was completed, which hopefully will contribute to both better water quality and healthier wetlands/lagoon ecology.
Urban runoff from the Santa Ana River enters the ocean between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. There have been chronic water quality problems at Huntington State Beach. At Seal Beach, the San Gabriel River brings urban runoff to Seal Beach. Urban runoff from San Juan Creek results in frequent health advisory postings at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.
San Diego's Point Loma sewage treatment plant is another facility operating under a 301(h) waiver from the requirements of the Federal Clean Water Act. Surfrider Foundation's San Diego Chapter and others have supported plans for an Indirect Potable Reuse project (also referred to as reservoir augmentation) which would produce a high quality local water supply and greatly reduce wastewater discharges to the ocean. More info on this. Untreated sewage flowing from the Tijuana River, continues to threaten water quality at Tijuana Sloughs, Imperial Beach and as far north as Coronado, especially after periods of heavy rain.
Other concerns for Southern California surfing areas include erosion and development. Solana Beach has several beach areas and surf spots threatened by large seawall projects. A development at Dana Strands in Dana Point includes a massive new revetment along the entire length of beach, in direct conflict with section 30253 of the Coastal Act.
Recognition by State
According to CCC staff:
California recognizes waves as a valuable recreational, economic, and cultural resource. It has taken action to protect surf spots. However, it has not calculated an economic value of surfing and surf-related activities.
The California Coastal Access Guide does identify ocean recreation opportunities along the California shoreline; however, surfing areas are not listed in this document.
Restrictions on beach recreational activities, including surfing, vary from beach to beach according to jurisdiction. Restrictions on surfing are based on health and safety issues - the need to separate users as a means of avoiding conflicts. Typically such restrictions are posted on-site.
Several sections of the California Coastal Act deal with the importance of preserving areas that provide coastal recreation. Although surfing is not specifically mentioned, the following Coastal Act sections can be interpreted as protecting surfing areas:
30210. In carrying out the requirement of Section 4 of Article X of the California Constitution, maximum access, which shall be conspicuously posted, and recreational opportunities shall be provided for all the people consistent with public safety needs and the need to protect public rights, rights of private property owners, and natural resource areas from overuse.
30213. Lower cost visitor and recreational facilities shall be protected, encouraged, and, where feasible, provided. Developments providing public recreational opportunities are preferred.
30220. Coastal areas suited for water-oriented recreational activities that cannot readily be provided at inland water areas shall be protected for such uses.
30221. Oceanfront land suitable for recreational use shall be protected for recreational use and development unless present and foreseeable future demand for public or commercial recreational activities that could be accommodated on the property is already adequately provided for in the area.
Sections 30220 and 30213 of the Coastal Act were recently referred to in a CCC staff report (see page 7) as "surfing policies":
“Based on the aesthetics issue alone the project is inconsistent with the surfing policies (Sections 30220 and 30213) of the Coastal Act.”
The report California's Ocean Economy by Judith Kildow and Charles S. Colgan (National Ocean Economics Program, July 2005) estimates that there were over 1.1 million active surfers in California in 2000, spending a cumulative 22.6 million days in the water that year.
In Los Angeles County, the Watch the Water website provides information on weather and surf conditions, parking, controllable camera views of the beach/surf, and links to several other websites that have water quality and other beach information.
↑Surfrider Foundation 2002 State of the Beach Report, state survey response.