Update: The Caltrans road information website indicated no closures on Highway 1 as of early Wednesday, however, a Caltrans spokesperson gave an update later in the morning that the southbound lanes remain closed.
Pacific Coast Highway was closed in both directions Tuesday, Jan. 24 because of flooding. Crews remain on site Wednesday trying to get the southbound lanes open and to monitor ocean conditions.
Flooding had shut down traffic near Warner Avenue as the high tide sent sea water across the sand of Bolsa Chica State Beach and onto the busy roadway. The northbound lanes were opened late Tuesday evening.
The beach’s northern parking lots and the popular bike and walking path in Huntington Beach were closed as sand and salt water flooded the area for the fifth time this month. They have been closed for three weeks because of the set of swells and storms that battered the area earlier in the month.
Tides were at 6 feet at 10:25 am Tuesday, which were actually less than the weekend’s king tides that reached nearly 7 feet. Surf was in the 3-to 4-foot range Tuesday. Bigger waves were on the way with a swell from the north expected to mix with an unseasonable south swell; it was expected to build on Wednesday and peak Thursday into Friday.
“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve seen king tides before, but this is unique,” State Parks Superintendent Kevin Pearsall said about having so much flooding on a sunny day and so frequently, not just during storms. “We have tide changes regularly, it’s just a matter of when and how much.”
Berms are in different areas of the beach to try to hold back tide waters, as are piles of sand bags, Pearsall said.
Flooding onto the Pacific Coast Highway had only happened a handful of times in the past decade, typically during winter storm activity, Pearsall said. “It’s crazy, this is a regular, beautiful winter Southern California day and we have the tide going to the Pacific Coast Highway at the north end of Bolsa,” the superintendent said. “That is not a normal occurrence for us.”
Angela Madison, a Caltrans spokeswoman, said crews were working hard to get the area cleaned up and damage was being assessed.
The area that flooded on Tuesday is not the same low-lying area that flooded during the storms, Madison said.
“This is atypical. This is not something that we know has happened in recent years,” she said. “This is a higher point and a result of the storm surge and high tide.
“We tend to get a storm surge,” she said, “we’ve just never seen this.”
Various agencies are all working with Caltrans on the response, including State Parks, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the city of Huntington Beach and utility companies, because power lines and sewers run under the Pacific Coast Highway.
By 3 pm Tuesday, some of the water had receded, but there was a lot of sand and debris remaining. The heaviness of the soggy sand makes it challenging to scoop up to transport to the maintenance yard, so workers are manually picking up the large sticks and heavy sand debris, Madison said. “They’ve been working around the clock.”
With water and sand still covering the road and parking lot, it was possible there are some areas with sinkholes, but it was too soon to tell, Madison said.
Runner Judi Mantere said she was on the beach path training for a 10K that is part of the upcoming Surf City Marathon when she saw the water getting higher and higher.
ash @runningpunks! 10K today. Incredibly high tide came in while I was running. Over the beach path & into the parking lot. Debris & trash everywhere. No way to avoid wet shoes. Waves are HUGE! #runningpunks #HuntingtonBeach #run #surfcity @HBSurfCityUSA pic.twitter.com/Zk20u2MIBO
— Judi (@JudiMantere) January 24, 2023
“I saw the water coming up pretty far on the sand on my way south, going on the beach path along PCH,” she said. “I turned around near Dog Beach, when I got back it was coming up so high I had to stop and take some videos and pictures. Then, there was nowhere to run because it was going in the parking lot. I just had to get my running shoes wet.”
A worker commented to her: “I just cleaned this all up!”
“It was full of debris and trash after the rains and now it is again with the high tides,” she said. “There’s just trash everywhere.”
Mantere said she grew up in Huntington Beach and couldn’t believe what she saw.
“I lived here my whole life, so I’ve seen a few high tides, but nothing like this in a long time,” she said.
Caltrans told Pearsall seawater may impact sand beneath the concrete parking lots, causing damage, he said.
“We’re going to have geo-tech engineers come out and we’ll evaluate the situation after the king tides,” Pearsall said, noting environmental scientists will also come and assess the area.
Bolsa Chica is one of the most successful revenue generating State Parks, he noted.
“We really need to assess the situation and try and correct it, not only for protection and environment sake, but for visitor access,” he said.
Recent swells and high tides have battered beaches across the California coastline, flooding streets in areas such as near Sunset Beach, Newport Beach and Long Beach, ripping wooden piles from the Seal Beach Pier and causing severe erosion to some beaches.
Alicia Cox, owner of SeaLegs at the Beach located on the sand in the same vicinity as the flooding, was in meetings all morning and came out to a slew of missed calls alerting her to the flooding.
The eatery was spared damage this time. After the last surge that sent seawater towards her building, customers came out to help clean up debris that washed up and put sandbags in front of the entrance, she said.
The restaurant is closed for the winter, with plans of reopening by Feb. 25, but damage to the parking lot or her building could push that date back.
Long-term damage to the lots would be devastating to her business, which relies on beach visitors, she said. “I’m hoping that it’s just a fear right now and there’s no sinkholes. We’ll have to wait and see what the testing says.”
She worries for another concession, SeaSalt Woodfire Grill, she has further south at Bolsa Chica, with bigger waves forecast for Wednesday.
“I never saw this coming, this is wild,” she said. “We live for the beach, we’ve created this beach culture. It’s a blessing, a slice of paradise. It’s something people escape to. When you see it look different, it’s heartbreaking.”