Sunset Cliffs – and surf culture – in danger of erosion

by on July 20, 2009 · 27 comments

in Culture, Environment, Ocean Beach

Sunset Cliffs. All photos by Mary E Mann

“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 (, 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 or show up to City Council meetings on Monday nights.  Aguirre is also, coincidentally, running for governor, and this information can be found at

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.”

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

lane tobias July 20, 2009 at 9:09 pm

I think Richard’s got my vote.

A few weeks ago, I was walking past all those beautiful houses on the Cliffs and wondered why the park itself wasn’t more regulated. But now I guess I see why that wouldn’t necessarily be such a good thing. It probably would make the whole area less accessible to local folks – all the while not solving the real problem, erosion.

Mary, this is a really great piece. Richard will probably be happy, since I assume more people will want to get involved in saving the cliffs.


lane tobias July 20, 2009 at 9:11 pm

I remember thinking the other day “I wonder why the Park isn’t more regulated”. Now I can see that not only would more regulation make the area less accessible to locals (primarily surfers) and more prone to tourists, but it also wouldn’t solve the ongoing erosion issue – which is obvious even to the untrained, naked eye.

Great Piece Mary…I really got the whole picture.

Richard’s got my vote!


mr fresh July 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm

can we just tear down all the houses along the road & let nature take its course?


jettyboy July 21, 2009 at 7:45 am

Really a great piece Mary. Informs specific issues very clearly, with no pontificating. This is the Rag showing what it can do best helping our community. Being one of those surfers who considered certain areas my “home break” and surfed the cliffs several times a week when possible, I can tell you there is a “culture of the cliffs”. It ebbs and flows like the ocean, but it’s always there. Thanks for your work on this. JB


bodysurferbob July 21, 2009 at 8:04 am

as i dry myself off, here’s a couple points:
* the Cliffs have always had erosion – it’s not a problem – it’s nature. would you want to stop the erosion of the grand canyon? have you seen photos of the old cliff gardens that have eroded away? how about needle’s eye? should we have stopped that from eroding?

* just as an aside, the city waited for OB activism to die off in the late 70s before they went ahead and dropped all those boulders over the side to ‘save the cliffs’. earlier waves of activists would not have allowed them.

* in the meantime, what do we do about the road and trails falling apart. we cannot close them, and we cannot halt access to the cliffs or the shores. we’re not into saving the cliffs for the rich who live near them. i don’t have a solution.

* richard has been difficult to work with in the past, but i agree with his emphasis here and now. he’s not the only one who loves and cares for the cliffs.

* lastly, it’s no “coincidence” RA is running for – what? governor? geez! is he delusional or just naively idealistic, you know, all for the citizen-politician (like his uncle Mike?).


Ricci February 13, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Bodysurfer, if you notice, its not simply NATURE at work because streets, alleys and homes werent simply “grown” in OB. The natural erosion that COULD have occurred at the cliffs would have been CENTURIES slower if there were grassy hills and dirt to slow the water that drains through the area and rushes towards and down the cliffs.
The idea of creating a drainage solution is outstanding and will SLOW the natural erosion of the cliffs. SHEESH.. “its nature” ROFL


jon July 21, 2009 at 8:16 am

Wow! Mary, this is a great piece. I read it all last night but was too brain-dead at 12:00am to leave a comment. The sand-bags holding up the cliff are laughable. Especially with the threat of El Niño this year, it seems futile. Isn’t Richard Mike Agguire’s brother? I’ve always felt like that family held the interest of the people and communities above special interests and politicky b.s.

Thanks for this insightful article Mary. I will definitely be paying closer attention to Mr. Agguire and that area of the Cliffs park.

FYI…those not from southern CA:
El Niño: (Spanish for “The niño”)


jon July 21, 2009 at 8:17 am

Uncle! Thanks body surfer. I knew there was a family connection there.


bodysurferbob July 21, 2009 at 8:42 am

jon – uh, gracias for the spanish lesson LOL (El Niño: (Spanish for “The niño”)


doug porter July 21, 2009 at 9:23 am

and now it’s only a matter of time before the Daily Fishwrap seizes on the family relationship between the agguires and starts the campaign to “save the cliffs” (NOT). Maybe they can find a way to work in the unions and Larry Remer as bad guys while they’re at it.


Shawn Conrad July 21, 2009 at 9:54 am

I have been involved with Richard on a number of projects and he is one of my local OB heroes.


BillRayDrums July 21, 2009 at 12:18 pm

If Richard does not win his bid for governor, I say we elect him Mayor of OB.

And since I helped build his website, I will give a ringing endorsement:


jettyboy July 21, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Man, I thought the running for office was like for OB, or city council or something until I checked out the web site. My mind’s thinkin’ holy shit is this guy nuts, or does he have a lot of money he wants to waste or what? I wish him the best but, to be so naive politically to assume he can actually win the governor’s seat his first time around is kinda nuts. He should use all that money he’s about to waste and find ways to help the Cliffs.
Let the bashing begin over the democratic process and how cynical of me to assume he can’t win, after all anyone can become president now right? This is America etc.. waste your time if you think it’ll make you feel better, but i think all the energy that will be put into a run for governor would be better used to save the cliffs at a local level. That’s just me, what’s your opinion?


doug porter July 21, 2009 at 6:49 pm

for the record…i thought richard aguire’s uncle michael did a good job. & yes, the cliffs need saving.


bodysurferbob July 21, 2009 at 8:05 pm

jettyboy – agree with you a lot. but you know he could simply be using the election to get his views out there, with no real intention of winning, sort of like the green party, but without the greens, and instead has surfers.


PSD July 21, 2009 at 9:09 pm

I habitually ‘waste my vote.’ Cast one for Nader when I was 18. Cast another for Kerry when I was 22 and swore instantly thereafter that I’d never waste another vote on one of the ‘ruling parties’ again. Last governor’s race I voted for some guy whose whole spiel in the voter pamphlet was pot legalization, no cause or justification to be found. Richard, you got my vote this next go-round.

Mary – another excellent piece. I tip my cap to you, ma’am.


Mary E. Mann July 22, 2009 at 8:11 pm

Thanks everybody. It’s an interesting situation, and I’d like to know more about the geography there – it’s one of the most beautiful places we have, I think, and least touristy


jim grant July 23, 2009 at 7:57 am

Interesting perspective. Are there any cost projections on the drainage system, or has this type of drainage system be implemented anywhere else in a costal zone?  A french drain the lenght of the cliffs….hummm might cost a dollar or three…….Money might be better spent on sewer lines so at least the crap stays outa the surfline.
I have traveled the whole California and Oregon coast and it appears to me that the ocean, tide, surf and nature take’s what it wants including coastline when it wants.
Thats my opinion.


OB Rag Fan July 23, 2009 at 11:34 am

Another great one Mary! I hope this piece can revive some of the fight again. The greatest thing about Richard’s and your work is that it helps spread awareness and educate folks that may otherwise not know the underlying problems at the Cliffs. Who knows, maybe some of our elected officials will get educated on this and take some action.

By the way, is anyone else having trouble accessing the website? (


Larry OB July 23, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Ancient Peruvian terrace farmers would be appalled by the street layout in Sunset Cliffs. We can’t bulldoze the entire site and start over, so Richard’s cattle crossing drains look like a very good solution. Residents could also help by capturing more rainwater on their property, either into barrels or improving infiltration. Things like replacing concrete driveways with permeable material. The city would need to subsidize the removal of excess soil and the recycling of concrete rubble. The crushed concrete could be used as a base layer under a more decorative rock or gravel.

Something for the fact checkers….the Ocean Beach Recreation Board? Never heard of them.


Larry OB July 23, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Florence Shipek once told me that a small band of natives were allowed to live free at Sunset Cliffs as long as they provided seafood for the Presidio. Apparently the Spanish soldiers were lousy fisherman. Today we still have people that want to live free of certain rules and planning decisions. Their bootleg benches don’t surprise or offend me. Many years ago some locals made a concrete fire pit down on No Surf Beach, because the city wouldn’t ever put one there. Locals were willing to maintain it. Having a designated fire area helped prevent other burns sites spreading willy nilly around the beach. It seemed like a win-win situation. Until a local homeowner sledge hammered the fire pit, and scattered the pieces. He was probably a lousy fisherman.


Dave Gilbert July 23, 2009 at 8:31 pm

yes OB Rag fan, I had trouble too, try this:

Nice article Mary, you rock!!! ;)


jim grant July 26, 2009 at 7:52 am

I think one of the reasons for terrible cliff erosion could be the big surf ….like we are having now….


Larry OB July 26, 2009 at 3:08 pm

The base of the cliffs are more dense than the upper portion. Some portions of the lower cliff are also armored with granitic rock brought in from elsewhere. Waves do erode the lower cliffs, but the soft upper layers are easily eroded by rain, wind, and human traffic. Some of the soft upper layers aren’t native. They are fill soils dumped in the 1950’s. Some of our worst problems at Sunset Cliffs are man made. Things like fill dirt, sea walls, and granite boulders. We tried too hard to have a road that is relatively level. Personally, I could live with a road that was less level and tailored to the natural shape of the area. I would also drop the coastal walking trail down in several locations, so it runs across the top of the jetty rocks.


jim grant July 26, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Costal erosion is a very complex subject. I would like to see opinions from experts in Coastal Morphodynamics,fracture zones, water denisty and coastline geogolgy in a follow up article if possible. Amd maybe a opinion from a expert in the type of drainage system proposed. Including where it has been implemented before and a cost projection.


Ricci February 13, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Great article, yes. With regard to comments linking Richard and Michael simply because they share the same last name, I can only say its sad ignorance. Richard is Tony Aguirre’s son. Tony was loved in San Diego and was never involved in any scandals. Richard was raised by Tony. Michael is his uncle and has nothing to do with this man. If you cant understand that, just imagine if you had to deal with being linked to an uncle or a cousin who has done something wrong when they have nothing to do with you other than being a relative.


Curt June 12, 2011 at 9:50 am

The erosion of the cliffs in the undeveloped areas of Pt. Loma, south of Ladera, seems to be about the same as that in the developed areas. And when you consider that most of the runoff in the developed parts is captured in gutters and diverted to culverts — it doesn’t just sheet off the cliffs’ edge — it seems a stretch to conclude that development is the culprit. I suspect erosion today is proceeding pretty much as it has for the past few hundred years.

Still, Aguirre’s policy point seems sound: reduce the erosion rather than restrict access. It sounds like the OB rec board is really about trying to enhance cliff-front property values by redirecting return traffic thru the nearby neighborhood. In other words, they want to enhance cliff-front property values by reducing the property values of their neighbors a block inland.


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