The Fenton Sand Mine at Pala

The Fenton Sand Mine on the San Luis Rey River at Pala, located four miles east of I-15 along SR76, has a Major Use Permit from San Diego County for 225 acres of the river bed. They mine 600,000 tons of sand per year that is used for about 20% of all the concrete used in San Diego County. Most of the double trailers seen along SR76 and I-15 in North County originate from this mine, operated by Hanson Aggregates Pacific Southwest. The facility is also called North County Redi Mix.

There are two other nearby mines, both in the Pala Indian Reservation a few miles upstream:



The Mine is supposed to end operations in 2005, assuming that there have not been any other extensions to the original 1975 30-year Use Permit. The dikes on the River are supposed to gradually erode over several decades thereafter, being overtopped by a 10 year storm event and especially eroded from a 100 year storm event, filling the borrow pit with river sediments again.

Once the pit is filled, the dikes will be removed.

However, debate is ongoing about the future of the Mine. The Pala-Pauma Sponsor Group want the rock dike to remain to retain the existing pond, and also want the site to be a public park as partial compensation to the community for putting up with the mining operation for 36 years. The County Department of Planning and Land Use is considering 18 acres outside the conservation easement for the desired lake. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the California Department of Fish and Game are all strongly against fishing and boating adjacent to a conservation area.

Sources: Gregory Canyon Draft EIR, 4.4-4,5, 5-8; VN 2/3/00, 3, 34; Carol Whitmore emails of 2/7/00, 2/9/00.

Sand Mining and the Sand-Starved Beaches of North County:

Sand mining of the San Luis Rey River is the major reason that North County beaches from Oceanside south are losing their sand, resulting in expensive measures to put sand from other sources onto the beaches.

Sand on beaches moves in a continuous cycle. It is transported by rivers to the ocean, and then follows the ocean currents along the beach until the sand is lost to the beach, either through transport offshore or capture by a deep canyon near shore. The transport along the beach is called a littoral cell.

In North County, the Oceanside littoral cell begins in Oceanside and ends in La Jolla. This cell loses between 90,000 and 790,000 cubic yards of sand annually, depending on the severity of the storm season (SDUT 1/3/95, B1). Since a cubic yard of sand weights 1.35 tons, it doesn't take a genius to see that the 450,000 cubic yards of sand that the Fenton Sand Mine is removing each year is almost exactly the amount of sand needed by the North County beaches each year.

Reinhard Flick, an oceanographer with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has documented 20 years of slowly decreasing maximum beach widths from ~1978 to 1998, beginning roughly 10 years after the commencement of the Fenton Sand Mine. Douglas Inman, director of Coastal Studies at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, predicted in the early 1980s that North County's beaches would "be like they are now, a patchwork of sandy beaches sprinkled between cobble-covered beaches". (Source: SDUT 3/23/98, A1)

North County is unusual in that there is only one dam on the rivers north of the San Dieguito River holding back any sand that ordinarily goes to the beaches, which is the major cause of denuded beaches elsewhere. Therefore, pointing the finger to the Fenton Sand Mine is much more easily justified here than for similar situations elsewhere. The only additional restriction on sand flow to the beaches may result from the Lake Henshaw dam at the headwaters of the San Luis Rey, which may also cut peak flood flow enough to inhibit sand transport downstream.

The cost of putting sand on the beach artificially is at least $5 - 10 per cubic yard (SDUT 4/14/93, A1). Thus the cost to the beaches of North County is about $3 - 6 million per year for the sand mined by the Fenton Mine.

Therefore the true cost of the sand taken from the Sand Mine include the following:

Of course, it is difficult to place a dollar value on the last four costs, but probably the sand-replacement costs alone exceed the price that users pay for this sand. One can only hope that the County refuses to renew their lease in 2005 and allows the River and North County beaches to revert to their natural state.

I thank Reinhard Flick for pointing out the possible reduction in peak flow caused by the Lake Henshaw dam.

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Copyright © 1997-2000 by Tom Chester.
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Last update: 24 March 2000.