“All this shit – the benches, the trail, the signs – none of it matters if we don’t stop the erosion of the cliffs.”
This is Richard Aguirre’s main message, filtered through a long discussion of erosion, geology, politics, surf culture, and safety hazards. Verbiage quickly flies in my direction as Aguirre pulls back his long blond curls and gives a quick nod to a leather-faced surfer rolling by in an ancient VW bus. Aguirre knows everyone on the cliffs, from power-walking older ladies to young surfers who pepper their sentences with “bro” and “dude” and stare myopically at the waves. This is Aguirre’s home, and these are his people. Saving Sunset Cliffs – this is his passion.
He has his work cut out for him. He explains the epic battle to save the cliffs to me as we walk along said cliffs, using the admittedly extremely unsafe cliff trail. The trail weaves around the guardrail that lines the cliffs and is peppered with cut-aways. Running on the cliffs is an exercise in caution – on one side a drop-off down the cliff, on the other a winding boulevard. Both sides can, and have, meant death. Three people have died at the cliffs just this year, says Aguirre, and a few more were injured.
“When I took the city guys out here to show them, I said, there’s your trail and there’s the sheer cliff. They wouldn’t even get near it,” exclaims Aguirre, his face the pure expression of exasperation with utter stupidity.
The most recent skirmish in the battle to save the cliffs occurred over a series of benches, put in by community members to commemorate loved ones. The benches began to disappear, and were eventually all found in a dumpster near the cliffs. The Ocean Beach Parks & Recreation Board admitted that the city had done it because the benches had been declared unsafe, but Aguirre argues that the Rec Board is a special interest group that does not speak for the community, and it was behind the push to remove the benches. Aguirre showed up at a Rec Board meeting with several supporters of his group, Save Sunset Cliffs (www.savesunsetcliffs.com), protesting the removal. They got their benches back.
“You can’t let the city decide what’s right for your park,” he exclaims, intoning it like he might say ‘your child’, or ‘your family’. Sunset Cliffs, I understand, feels that way to Richard Aguirre.
In the battle of Sunset Cliffs, Aguirre and his supporters with Save Sunset Cliffs are pitted against the Ocean Beach Recreation Board and their city connections. Aguirre’s supporters number in the hundreds, and span the community. Whatever else you may say about him, Aguirre is excellent at forming an army. He summarizes for me the Rec Board’s plans for the cliffs – to make the boulevard a one-way street, get rid of all the parking lots, add comfort stations, and bring in a park ranger. Basically, the park would become much more highly regulated, and likely be marketed as a new tourist spot in San Diego.
This angers Aguirre for two reasons: (1) all of the new park plans still do nothing to slow or halt erosion, which he sees as THE main issue to be addressed, and (2) the park would damage or destroy the long-standing surf culture at the cliffs, a culture that Aguirre argues is the only true culture that the area has. He is passionate about involving surfers and surf culture in any plan for the cliffs, to preserve this way of life for the actual residents of Ocean beach and Point Loma, who surf here daily.
“Let me tell you about the Rec Board,” says Aguirre as we walk down the cliffs, waving absent-mindedly at a bicyclist he knows, “It’s 30 old women who have been wanting to make it [the cliffs] like Mission Trails for the last 20 years. We’ve stopped them twice.” [He is referring to two occasions, once in 2001 and once in 2005, when community members led by Aguirre took over the Rec Board and got rid of their plan for the park].
He points down the road and shows me where one of the Rec Board members lives, a large and elegant house right on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, and lowers his voice:
“You think, how can these people not be worried about erosion? And then you think, damn, how much is that house worth if no one drives in front of it?”
All the issues of the cliffs – the removal of the benches, the unsafe cliff trail, the threat to surf culture, impending regulation, and even the lowering of the danger signs to child height (a fairly recent move by the city that irritates Aguirre to no end – the signs are now largely ignored or, to his consternation, used as photo props) – these are all important to Aguirre, but they are ephemeral in the face of the cliff erosion. If we don’t stop the erosion, Aguirre warns over and over, then nothing else matters. Park, benches, signs, boulevard, houses, surf culture and all will eventually go tumbling into the sea if the issue of erosion is not addressed.
Our first stop on the erosion tour is a spot on the trail, completely innocuous looking. Aguirre kicks at the dirt on the cliff side with his toe, shuffling aside the loose dirt and gravel to reveal a slippery staircase of sandbags. He points at the sandbags, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if steam had started pouring out of his ears, like a cartoon Elmer Fudd seething over the antics of a wascally wabbit. This wascally wabbit is the city of San Diego, and Aguirre is dumbfounded at the stupidity of trying to stop erosion with sandbags. Not to mention the absurd danger of having a row of hidden, slippery sandbags line the border of a trail on the edge of a cliff.
Further on, where the trail starts down to No Surf Beach, Aguirre points out a thick stand of sandbags shoring up Sunset Cliffs Blvd. The sandbags appear to be holding up at least five inches of road, though there’s no way to say how deep they go. We followed the cliffs trail to this point, and have just come back through a cutaway from the street. At this part of the street the trail extends out on the road and is bordered by plastic pylons. This is also where the road curves sharply, sending cars wide. The cars, Aguirre says, are usually going about 40 mph here. He says he brought a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers to see this part of the road, and the rep said that the area could use a traffic study.
“I said, ‘bro, you are a fucking idiot,’” says Aguirre, characteristically not mincing words, “You don’t need to put something in and then have to change everything to fix the problem. The trail is the problem, not traffic.”
We continue, and we’re back to erosion. Aguirre points at a bank of sand on the side of the curb. He bends down here, and explains the complicated erosion situation to me as clearly as he can. Basically, when it rains in San Diego, the water rolls down the hill toward Sunset Cliffs. It gains speed on steep streets with little or no drainage, is contained between the curbs, and is added to from other curving side streets and lower rainfall. Finally, the whole load hits Sunset Cliffs Blvd at about 70 mph, according to Aguirre. It jumps the cliff and rolls down, eating away at the surface of the cliff from the top-down. The ramp of sand is indicative of this.
“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see how erosion is happening on Sunset Cliffs,” says Aguirre dryly.
By Aguirre’s calculations, 99% of the erosion at the cliffs is from rainfall without drainage. He points out that if the cliffs were eroded by the ocean, it would all be beach, or caves, but the current shape of the cliffs suggests that erosion is all due to what is called top-down block erosion – water hitting the cliffs from the top and causing chunks to break off the top and fall. The city wants to do “another study”, says Aguirre, spitting fire.
“It’s like, you guys are not idiots. It’s one day a year that the high tide will even touch the cliffs. Do we really worry about that, or the 85 days that the water flows heavily and comes right off the edge?”
It’s a valid point, but Aguirre, of course, has a course of action to prevent it. He has put together a comprehensive drainage plan with other members of Save Sunset Cliffs. Essentially, he wants to put a drainage system in through the length of the alley a half a block behind Sunset Cliffs Blvd. In the cross streets that lead down to the cliffs, he plans to put cattle guards to route the water to the alleys, then out a storm drain off the cliffs, to control the flow. Since the Rec Board has changed their bylaws and is now not open to votes by non-members (largely, Aguirre says, because of the previous two cases of the community taking action against to thwart their plans), Aguirre plans to bypass them and start hitting the City Council meetings with his plan.
Aguirre already has a large group of community members supporting him, but any interested community members are invited to contact him at Richard@savesunsetcliffs.com or show up to City Council meetings on Monday nights. Aguirre is also, coincidentally, running for governor, and this information can be found at www.aguirreforgovernor.com.
As we reach the end of the cliffs, Aguirre’s anger at the injustice served to the cliffs has melted into a sort of weary irritation, and maybe sadness as well. He waves at old surfers that we pass, explaining that some of these guys have been surfing the cliffs for 50 years.
“These people have been here the longest, they’re the only ones,“ says Aguirre, brushing a long blonde lock out of his eyes, “What’s our culture? It’s them. And if we’re not careful we’re going to lose their boulevard.”