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This way of looking at Sharp Park has gotten some traction in the environmental community. "By putting the golf course in, it changed to a freshwater environment from salt, and into that freshwater environment moved two endangered species," says Mike Ferreira, an officer with the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club. "If you undo that environment, it's a detriment to the species. Restoring it to a salt environment is a no-no ... and that's what happens when you return it to the way it was." Even the name of the central marsh at Sharp Park, Laguna Salada — "Salty Lagoon" — would appear to hint at a historically brackish body of water.
Others dispute this view, arguing that other coastal water bodies — such as Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands — support healthy populations of frogs in their inland reaches, where salinity levels decline. Asked about the etymology of Laguna Salada, Plater evinces a note of exasperation. "It's kind of like Mount Diablo," he says. "The Spanish came and they thought devils lived on top of the mountain, whereas the native people thought it was nirvana. Trying to do historical ecology just based on common names created by people who used to live there is a sophomoric attempt to look at what needs to be done."
Jeff Miller is a San Francisco–based conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit that has filed a notice of intent to sue the city over alleged Endangered Species Act violations at Sharp Park. He says arguments that restoration would harm the snake and frog are based on "misconceptions" about both historical conditions at the site and environmentalists' vision for what it would look like without golf. Before the course was built, "it wasn't one big salt pond," he says. "What was there before the golf course was primarily a freshwater system that occasionally had saltwater." Moreover, any environmental restoration should at least temporarily preserve the seawall to prevent abrupt saltwater flooding, he says.
Demons, salt, snakes, storms, golf — the abstract debate over what course man and nature should take at Sharp Park tends to range far afield. It's odd, then, that one of the more basic aspects of the discussion — how much any of this will cost, and whether San Francisco can afford it in a time of severe budget crisis — has barely been broached at City Hall. When it has come up in talks, it turns out that, despite the rosy picture painted by Rec and Park officials, maintaining a golf course in Pacifica is going to cost an awful lot.
The key to understanding the true scope of the financial burden Sharp Park poses lies in looking away from proposed renovations at Sharp itself and toward the infrastructure needed to sustain a golf course on this flood-prone coastal flat in the first place. While the expense of realigning the course to create a more hospitable enclave for the frog and snake is not insignificant — according to Rec and Park estimates, it could rise as high as $11.3 million — the more consequential costs involved in keeping Sharp Park open are those attached to a large-scale recycled-water project and required repairs to the seawall that protects the course (and its amphibian and reptilian inhabitants) from harmful incursions of saltwater.
It's worth noting, at the outset, that Sharp Park does bring in revenue from greens fees. The problem is that when operating expenses are factored in, the golf course doesn't turn out to be much of a moneymaker. Since 2006, it has brought the city an average of about $1.2 million annually, according to an April 2009 report from the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst. In fiscal year 2008-2009, however, it ran an operating deficit of $43,000 when expenses were accounted for. Of course, such small running deficits aren't a big deal, far outstripped as they are by the looming cost of capital improvements. "In its day-to-day operational costs, it's fairly negligible in terms of what the deficit is," Mirkarimi says. "But that's not the issue that's before us."
The issue is the big projects the city has to undertake at Sharp Park. Start with the seawall. Built over the course of about a decade beginning in 1941, the wall today is a large, earthen structure, girded on the beach side with stone riprap, which spans 3,200 feet of Sharp Park's western border. According to a 2009 report by Arup engineering consultants for the San Francisco Department of Public Works, the seawall has suffered two serious failures since then: In 1958, waves overtopped the structure and left most of the golf course underwater, and in 1983 the wall breached, allowing incoming tides to carry sand onto Sharp Park's lawns. Along with these incidents, the wall has been subject — like other seaside structures in Pacifica — to the steady, undermining effects of sea-level rise and erosion. The Arup report found that up to 300 feet of beach has been lost since the golf course was constructed.
The report also found that the seawall has deteriorated since its last renovation in 1989, and that a "high risk" exists that portions of it could collapse in the face of sea-level rise or storms. To bring the entire structure up to snuff would cost $12 to $14 million; more focused repairs, aimed only at the wall's weakest section, would require $6 to $7 million. The consultants recommended the cheaper option.
To some outside observers, even these hefty sums underestimate the real cost of maintaining the Sharp Park seawall over the coming decades. One of them is Bob Battalio, a Pacifica resident and senior engineer at Philip Williams & Associates, a San Francisco hydrology firm that performs environmental and technical studies for municipalities. In April 2009, Battalio wrote to the Board of Supervisors, predicting that $32 million was a realistic price for a "well-engineered" stone seawall that would adequately minimize the risk of flooding. "If you really want to hold the line there, and prevent coastal erosion from coming past the existing body, I think that's a very expensive proposition," he tells SF Weekly, noting that underinvesting in the wall now would only defer future expenses from additional upgrades and repairs. "If they don't put enough money in now, there may be a perception that it's not that expensive. But ultimately it will be."