Pacifica Improves Beach Facilities and Environmental Quality

The City of Pacifica won an Award for Excellence for this project in the Planning and Environmental Quality category of the 2005 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit

Each year, more than one million people visit Pacifica State Beach, which many consider one of Northern California’s better surfing beaches. Owned by the state parks system and locally operated by the City of Pacifica, it’s the first beach south of San Francisco that is safe for swimming and water sports. Flanked to the north and south by rocky headlands, the beach stretches along Highway 1 in a narrow swath of sand, cobbles and upland dune structures. It was once the site of a historic railroad that traversed the area. But over the years, buildings and construction fill had encroached upon the beach.

Pacifica State Beach offers spectacular surf and is heavily used all year long. The sandy beach is situated in a bay formed by the San Pedro Creek watershed. Pedro Rock to the south and the Rockaway Beach headlands to the north border the beach, which offers spectacular views of the Marin Headlands stretching north to Point Reyes. In the southern portion of San Pedro Bay is a historic boathouse fishing village where fishing boats have been launched since the turn of the century. The bay offers shelter for migrating gray whales and a number of fish species, including the first steelhead spawning stream south of San Francisco.

However, in 2000, the beachfront infrastructure was literally crumbling. Many old houses were run-down. Over time, construction had leveled the beach’s dunes in many areas, and there was inadequate parking for visitors. During peak storms, the beach neighborhoods and highway flooded. At high tides, big waves and swells eroded the infrastructure. Drifting sand was another problem, often covering sections of the road. The habitat was also suffering; in heavy rainfalls, the creek flooded.

In response, the city made dramatic improvements at the beach from 2001–04. It purchased some property and tore down a drug house and some old dilapidated homes. The beach and parking lot were on the far west end of the property, so the city moved the parking lot east, taking it out of the wave impact zone. The city moved the parking area and beach access back and raised it three feet to keep the waves on the beach and out of the parking lot.

The city also improved the habitat on the south end of the beach. To help fish spawn, it created a path for water to follow and restored about three acres of wetlands.

The facilities improvement project at Pacifica State Beach provided:

  • Flood protection for 300 homes and businesses;
  • Recreational improvements, beach access and public parking;
  • Habitat improvement for 80 species of birds, and three threatened and endangered species;
  • Shoreline protection from wave action for businesses, the highway, homes and public facilities;
  • Traffic safety for access and sand control on Highway 1;
  • Water quality improvements, including stormwater treatment and wetlands restoration;
  • Construction and restoration of 10 acres of riparian habitat for flood control;
  • A public art component featuring murals by children and local artists;
  • Construction of a Coastal Trail from Crespi Drive south along the new parking lot and access road to the south side of San Pedro Creek;
  • Construction of a Class I bike trail from the coastal trail to Peralta Road via San Pedro Terrace Road; and
  • Upgraded public facilities and restrooms.

Putting It All Together

Developing this project, which involved more than 10 environmental and citizen groups and hundreds of hours of public meetings, was a significant challenge. Participants included the Surfrider Foundation, Pedro Point Surf Club, Pacifica Beach Coalition, Pacifica’s Environmental Family, Sierra Club, Pacifica State Beach Task Force, San Pedro Creek Flood Control Committee, San Pedro Creek Watershed Coalition, Pacifica Cultural Arts Commission, California Native Plant Society, numerous businesses, and private and public landowners.

In addition to working with the community, the city had to comply with numerous requirements for permits, approvals and monitoring reports from the California Coastal Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Fish and Game, Regional Water Quality Control Board, National Marine Fisheries Service, California State Lands Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Air Resources Board, San Mateo County Health Department and California Department of Parks and Recreation.

The project cost approximately $10 million and was funded by the:

  • Army Corps of Engineers ($5.7 million);
  • State Water Resource Control Board ($1.6 million);
  • California Department of Parks and Recreation ($1 million);
  • California Coastal Conservancy ($1 million); and
  • San Mateo County Transit Authority ($500,000).

Pacifica received the 2005 National Restored Beach Award from the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association for improved visitor services and innovation in shoreline protection, stormwater treatment and wetlands restoration.

Project’s Benefits Are Far Reaching

Since the project was completed, local businesses have seen increases in revenue of approximately 30 percent. Beach usage is at an all-time high. In addition, following project completion, Pacifica experienced powerful storms that would have caused flooding and wave damage if the improvements had not been in place.

The project has also produced public health benefits. Since the stormwater treatment system and wetlands restoration have been completed, for the first time ever there have been periods when the creek and beach have had a 65 percent decrease in total bacterial coliform levels.

The project includes one of the first wetlands stormwater treatment systems approved by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and one of the first tidally influenced wetlands restorations funded and approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. The project completes a critical link in the California Coastal Trail. More than 75 bird species have been counted in the new wetlands restoration, and steelhead trout are spawning in the stream’s lower reaches for the first time in 50 years.

The beach has three new ADA-accessible ramps and 50 new parking spaces. The beach parking area now also provides safe access to the highway.

The project added and moved 10,000 cubic yards of sand, creating approximately four additional acres of beach and restored habitat. A new ADA-compliant one-mile section of multi-use walkway along the beach is heavily used for walking, biking and skating.

The project plan has been presented to other coastal communities, which have been interested in its innovative approach and solutions for public use, protection of property and restoration
of wildlife habitat.

The challenges of bringing together a di-verse group of stakeholders to solve the problems facing Pacifica were met with determination by the community. The Pacifica State Beach Improvement Project has increased the confidence of Pacifica’s environmental community in the city’s efforts to restore and protect its natural resources. It has also demonstrated to residents and local businesses that the city was serious about improving safety and quality of life issues.

Contact: Scott Holmes, public works director, City of Pacifica; phone: (650) 738-7301; e-mail:

This article appears in the July 2006 issue of Western City
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