Opinion: ‘My Concerns for Our Disappearing Sunset Cliffs Natural Park’

by on April 3, 2018 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach

Screen capture from Dan Dennison’s video on the park’s erosion.

By Dan Dennison

For starters , understanding the fundamental issues involved with recommendations from the Park’s comprehensive Master Plan and how to accomplish them is detailed and controversial. Despite the continuing deterioration of the Park and the largely uncontrolled stormwater runoff into the Ocean it took 22 years to have a Master Plan approved.

Erosion control is the first priority of the Master Plan.

Repeatedly one sees calls for an environmentally responsible comprehensive drainage study and drainage plans for the Park. In 2012 the Dudek drainage study was prepared but it did not include all areas of the Park and run-on from uphill properties. It was not comprehensive. This study has been discredited by City Staff.  Equally important, it employed no environmentally sensitive techniques to keep the incident rain where it falls, rather than flowing down slope, just 18” to 36” large storm drain pipes to get the water and pollutants to the ocean.

Without a comprehensive understanding of all of the water crossing the park, it simply is not possible to effectively control the erosion that is devastating the Park.  I have inquired twice at presentations to the Natural Park Council by City consulting engineers whether there is a comprehensive drainage study used for preparing the current construction plans. I was told, both times, yes.  However I have not seen the drainage study and don’t know anyone else who has.  I have submitted an official request for records from the City to see the comprehensive drainage study.

A significant part of our problem is that the Hillside improvements are being done before completion of the comprehensive drainage study/plan due to pressure to utilize funding committed by the Coastal Conservancy for this portion of the improvements.  We are doing the process backwards: Phase 2 is being undertaken before Phase I. I have repeatedly pointed this out only to experience no apparent concern. Without understanding the impact of rushing storm water we likely will see the new trails washed out like we saw in 2015.

When you look at the work now underway at the Park, you will see large areas of the Park bulldozed bare.  We are told that all this destruction is for restoration of native habitat and trails, that were designed in the absence of the comprehensive drainage study.  This is a technique that no one who does restoration of native lands has ever employed, nor would they recommend.  We have been lucky that the last several storms were mild with gentle rain, otherwise there would have been massive erosion and pollution of the near shore ocean. It is going to happen—question is when?

I am one of 4 people involved with the Natural Park Council that have repeatedly raised serious concerns about whether the plans and work underway at the Park will actually result in consequential reduction of erosion and continuing discharge of pollutants to the ocean. My observations come from over 30 years of extensive community development work with large projects in many locations where stormwater management was always a critical matter. I became involved with this project because the condition of the Park is devastating and I know that effective site work for diversion, retention and detention of stormwater can dramatically change the continuing loss of this potentially magnificent public space.

It is likely that the native plant restoration work will be beneficial for the Park in the long run in terms of some stormwater uptake that will have a minor effect on erosion and will add to the more natural appearance of the park.  However it is not clear, at all, that the cumulative results from plans now in place for the entire Park will significantly mitigate erosion or address the other major goal of restoration.

We really can do better.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page April 4, 2018 at 9:10 am

Excellent piece, Mr. Dennison, spot on. As a long time park user, I have echoed these sentiments many times. It is being done ass backward probably for two reasons. The first is money, fixing the erosion problem will be costly. The second is a collection of people who have been diddling with this park for 30 years and nothing to show for it. They are desperate to show some kind of mark before they walk off into the sunset. So, we get trails, benches, native plants, and signage while the park washes away. Finally, the college above needs to be held accountable and made to retain its storm water run off, that would be a huge improvement.


Dan Dennison April 4, 2018 at 11:14 am

Thank you Geoff for capturing the scope of these matters. The Master Plan had the sequence correct– determine the hydraulics of the stormwater sheet flows, THEN design site improvements. I have had responsibility for many millions of dollars of development work in multiple locations and an just astounded with the ineptitude of expending scarce financial resources for improvements that will be unstable when that rare storm event hits the Cliffs. The native landscaping is wonderful because it will restore some of the native habitat and percolate some storm water to reduce erosion below. However, without the detention, retention and slowing down the rate of sheet flow of storm water we will not see effective management and control of erosion.


Howard Justus April 4, 2018 at 9:19 am

I could not agree more with your comment that erosion is devastating the Park. But, as you state, it has taken 22 years to get a master plan in place and another 10 years to get it partially funded. It is about time something was done, as imperfect as it may be.


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