Private mining companies are removing too much sand from San Francisco Bay. Without sufficient sand, there's not enough to replenish the shoreline, including wetlands and areas with severe erosion like Ocean Beach.
Baykeeper’s lawyers have been in court fighting to keep sand in the Bay using a complex legal principle called the public trust doctrine. We asked Managing Attorney Erica Maharg to explain the law and how we recently used it to protect the Bay’s sand.
What is the public trust doctrine?
The public trust doctrine embodies the idea that certain shared natural resources, like sand, belong to everyone. The state has the responsibility to manage these common resources on behalf of the public and ensure they are available for future generations.
And what’s more, the state has to make sure these shared resources are used in a way that benefits the public, by facilitating public access and enjoyment of the resources.
What’s an example of how the public trust doctrine works?
A recent example is the Martins Beach case. A billionaire purchased a large waterfront property in San Mateo and then closed off access to the public beach. He was successfully sued under the public trust doctrine. The court ruled that the beach belonged to the public and required public access, so he was forced to reopen the beach.
How does the public trust doctrine apply to sand mining?
Just like in the Martins Beach case, the sand on the floor of the Bay belongs to the public. When the state allows private companies to harvest and sell the Bay’s sand at unsustainable levels, it’s essentially taking away a finite resource from the public. And removing that sand causes erosion in areas like Ocean Beach, which means the public can’t access and enjoy parts of the beach.
Baykeeper sued the sand miners and argued that their mining doesn’t benefit the people of California or facilitate access to the shoreline. It only profits the companies. And the judges agreed with us.
How does Baykeeper’s new court ruling change how natural resources are managed?
The recent court ruling is important because it firmly rejected the state’s claim that private companies taking sand from the Bay somehow benefits the public.
Furthermore, the ruling sets a higher bar to protect shared resources across California. If the state wants to approve resource extraction in any waterway, it now has to show that the activity won’t harm public resources.
Now what will happen to the Bay’s sand?
Unfortunately, the court left it up to the state agency to interpret the science and make a final decision about whether the current level of sand mining allowed in the Bay is harming public beaches.
The good news is that no matter what the state determines now, sand mining levels in the Bay will be up for review again in a few years. At that point, the law from this court ruling will be on our side.
And by then we’ll have even more scientific data to show the link between sand mining and harmful shoreline erosion. Trust me, Baykeeper will be ready to step again in to protect the Bay’s sand for all Californians.
Pictured above: A sand miner on the Bay, as seen from the Baykeeper patrol boat. (Photo credit: San Francisco Baykeeper)