The dirt roadway at San Onofre State Beach is destroyed  at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. A drain broke and runoff water was instead flowing down at the toe of the slope, eating away at the roadway. With the latest storm sending high velocity streams of water from the hillside, the dirt road washed away.

The dirt roadway at San Onofre State Beach is destroyed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. A drain broke and runoff water was instead flowing down at the toe of the slope, eating away at the roadway. With the latest storm sending high velocity streams of water from the hillside, the dirt road washed away. (Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

(Tribune News Service) — Surfer Mark Gerardi looked out at the destroyed dirt road, a large gap slicing through the only entryway into San Onofre Surf Beach.

“It’s like a funeral,” he said, mourning his beloved surf spot on the empty beach this week during a brief break in storms. “It seems like 100 years of history and culture is gone.”

Surfers and countless beachgoers with fond memories of the tucked-away oasis have been in shock over the access road washing out recently at the popular beach wedged between San Diego and Orange County, a place so coveted that people wait hours in line to get a parking spot right on the sand on summer days – or any time a swell hits.

While the dirt road may be repaired in coming months, the sudden closure of the parking lot into San Onofre puts a spotlight on what’s at stake as negotiations continue over who should manage this popular surf spot and surrounding beaches, trails and campgrounds.

A 50-year lease between the military and California State Parks, a gift to the public by President Richard Nixon in 1971, expired three years ago and since then officials have been negotiating the fate of the land just south of San Clemente.

A three-year lease extension sunsets in about six months, on Aug. 31, and the question remains: Will State Parks continue to be the stewards to the land, or will the military take it back – and if they do, what does that mean for the public’s access?

“It’s a family beach, it’s always been that way,” said Don Craig, a 75-year-old San Onofre Surf Club member who has been riding waves there his entire life. “We just want to keep it that way.”

A sweet deal

San Onofre State Park doesn’t stop at the iconic Surf Beach where early-era wave riders discovered long, rolling Waikiki-like waves in the late 1920s.

There are two campgrounds, an expansive network of trails for hikers and bikers, and a string of other surf breaks, including Lower Trestles, where the world’s best surfers have battled for their championship title the last three years.

Originally, it was the native Acjachemen who called the land home, but by the turn of the century the beach was a popular fishing camp, then a surfing camp.

The Marine Corps bought the land during World War II from private landowners for $4.7 million, with about 160 square miles – plus 16 miles of coast starting at San Clemente’s southern border down to Oceanside – acquired in the deal, much of it becoming Camp Pendleton.

A growing number of surfers flocking to the tucked-away beach to ride waves as the sport grew in the ’40s was causing conflicts with the military. So in 1952, surfers created the San Onofre Surf Club, a select group that were allowed on the military property provided they had a sticker on their windshield to access the surf beach.

It wasn’t long before surfers discovered the perfect, peaky waves at nearby Lower Trestles, but that area was still off limits. Military personnel who chase away the surfers, sometimes confiscating surfboards or handing out citations.

When Nixon set up his “Western White House” on San Clemente’s southern border in 1969, the idea was raised to open a portion of the Camp Pendleton land to the public.

It would become the first in Nixon’s “Legacy of Parks” program, which sought to give the public a place to escape urban sprawl, a way to make use of surplus federal land that wasn’t being used.

The San Onofre Surf Club lobbied to also add Trestles to the State Parks jurisdiction.

In 1971, the State Parks system got a sweet deal from the Department of Navy for 6.5 miles of coast, plus some inland space to create the San Mateo campgrounds and trails  – the lease was $1.

Over the next 50-some years, the area became a respite from urban overdevelopment, a quick escape to nature that draws an estimated 2 million visitors per year.

Surfing nirvana

Talk to just about any old-timer at the beach at San Onofre, and they’ll tell tales of long summer days on the sand, a place filled with community and culture like no other surf spot they know.

Craig’s father, Doug, was one of the early surfers in the area – he was on the beach in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Growing up there was a “kid’s nirvana,” Craig said.

The masses have taken up surfing. Sprinter vans and campers line the area as “van life” gains in popularity and families mix in on the sand.

Craig, now 75, shows up nearly every day, watching the crowds from the sand or sitting on his surfboard waiting to catching waves at “The Point” or “Old Mans,” as he’s done for so many decades.

“Surfing is the fountain of youth,” he said. “I think we’re hopefully passing on this legacy to the younger generations and they will pass that on to their children.”

When it comes to California surf culture – the state’s official sport – San Onofre is as important as the famed Malibu surf break, Craig said.

“It’s an iconic place,” he said. “People from around the world come here.”

San Onofre was the reason Gerardi moved to San Clemente from Canada more than two decades ago.

“This is where we landed. This is what I think of when I dream of California in the ’50s. It’s the most special place in the world,” he said, looking at the empty beach left by the washed-out road.

San Onofre, like many other spots along the Southern California coastline, has had its share of erosion, with strong swells and high tides shrinking the sand space.

But one area that became apparently worrisome in recent months was near the Surf Beach’s entrance.

By late November, yellow caution tape was up as the beach eroded so much it cut into the dirt road. A concrete slab at the beach shower fell, palm trees toppled.

The section of beach was becoming vulnerable not just from the strong surf hitting it, but likely from a drainage system meant to keep the bluff above from eroding where a fairy shrimp vernal pool habitat existed, officials believe. The Navy had attempted repairs in November.

While, in theory, the system would help slow bluff erosion by diverting water, it couldn’t withstand the massive amounts of water from recent storms, said State Parks environmental scientist Riley Pratt.

The trifecta of big swells, heavy rain fall and a failed drainage system was too much for the road. By Tuesday, it was gone.

Environmental teams from State Parks and Camp Pendleton met on Friday to discuss fixes to the drainage pipes and the road damage, Pratt said. Repairs will likely be a collaboration, but it won’t be a quick fix, as they still have to figure out permitting and hire contractors.

“I think everyone is in agreement that it’s an urgent matter and we need to fix it as soon as we can and restore public access to the surf beach,” he said.

A swell of concern

Then there is the looming Aug. 31 lease deadline, with no word from either parties about how the negotiations are going or any plans set yet, said Steve Long, founder of the San Onofre Parks Foundation.

Seven years ago, the foundation started a lease renewal task force to be a liaison between the state and military.

Both sides are tight-lipped on the matter, unable to give details due to ongoing negotiations.

There’s two likely scenarios: either the land continues with a lease to State Parks, or the military choses to operate the area themselves, Long said.

What if the military opts to not allow, or to limit, public access?

“There would be a tremendous outcry if access is restricted,” Long said.

Surfers on the sand are starting to buzz about the looming deadline, wondering about what the future holds.

“We are concerned that we’re not hearing anything. The public isn’t hearing anything,” Long said. “I monitor the  grapevine from the beach, people want to start writing letters and if necessary, having public gatherings.”

Long said he hopes it doesn’t come to that. The surfers, state and military have always been amicable in their partnership, and he hopes that continues.

“We’re not adversaries, but we just wish to hear something,” he said. “I know there’s so many things the Department of Navy deals with, but this is critical. The time is growing short. We’re at a point where there’s a very real sense of urgency.”

San Onofre is where Congressman Mike Levin had his family holiday card taken this year, a place he, too, grew up visiting as a kid.

While he can’t speak to the details of the current negotiation, Levin said he is in constant contact with both the state and military officials.

“I do know all parties want a resolution to extend a lease,” he said. “And I’ve expressed my desire that a long-term lease is agreed upon.

“I think we have to come to an agreement so the military can continue their operations without disruption and the State Park can maintain the public access as a result of the extension,” he said. “I hope that they can work this out.”

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc.


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