Adam Brockie found just the right spot on the sandy stretch of beach to prop up his umbrella and lounge, ready to enjoy his seaside lunch while looking out toward the glistening blue ocean.

Just a few months ago, this stretch of beach in Dana Point was dotted with cobblestone rocks, big boulders and there was little sand to be found after several years of strong surf and high tides battering the quaint beach.

But now Capistrano Beach and Doheny State Beach are getting a much-needed infusion of sand, a project that could serve as a roadmap for other coastal areas also searching for creative ways to save disappearing beaches as erosion shrinks valuable sand space, which not only gives a place to play for millions of beachgoers but also serves as an important buffer between the sea and infrastructure.

Large sand replenishment projects spearheaded by the federal government historically costs tens of millions of dollars, require countless permits and spend years, sometimes decades, waiting for approvals.

But a surplus of sand stuck in the Santa Ana River following last year’s severe rain prompted officials to come up with an alternative: scoop it out, and instead of hauling it to a landfill, take it to a beach in need.

“I’m happy about it,” said Brockie, 82, who likes Capistrano Beach’s short walk to the sand and proximity to a nearby parking lot. “I come down more often.”

More discussions and concerns have been raised in recent years as the severity of the region’s coastal erosion issues have become more apparent.

A railroad in south San Clemente was shut down for months following track damage from erosion and on the north end of town, much of the sand goes underwater for several hours a day during higher tides.

Where the county is currently dumping sand by the truckload at Capistrano Beach, a popular basketball court buckled from battering waves five years ago, a restroom had to be removed and boulders were dumped to try to protect what’s left of the parking lot.

Since 2018, the county has been working on a “living shoreline” plan in conjunction with state officials, who also want to salvage neighboring Doheny State Beach, where hundreds of parking spaces, beach showers and fire rings have been lost to the sea.

While their longer-term solution still make its way through the lengthy approval process and the county awaits word on grant funding, officials jumped at the chance for the infusion of sand dug out of the Santa Ana River.

The project, which launched mid-June, will see an estimated 3,000 truckloads bring a total 45,000 cubic yards of sand to build up the beach.

State Parks Superintendent Scott Kibbey said about 15,000 cubic yards of sand have been placed down so far and the project is about one-third complete.

As the beach starts to form, there’s a visible difference and beachgoers are taking notice.

“People are already enjoying the beaches down there, they are already using the new space the sand has created for a variety of recreational opportunities,” he said. “They are sunbathing, walking their dogs, playing Frisbee. It’s been a game changer for us.”

And so far, the sand has held up against extreme high tides that hit earlier in the month.

“The way our planning experts designed the slope and the fill sections of the sand – it held up very well against those high king tides,” he said. “There’s so much strategy that goes into it … to do this in a thoughtful way to ensure the sand stays on the beaches as long as possible.”

As technology has advanced in recent years, more effort is going into studying and monitoring the sand to track whether it can sustain strong wave action.

Last week, a team from UC Irvine showed up with drones as part of a once-a-month monitoring program that will measure the sand through April.

The team sets out GPS markers to take images spanning from Doheny State Beach to Poche Creek. The images are stitched together to makes 3-D models, said Jo Schubert, research specialist for UCI’s department of civil engineering.

“We really don’t know where the sand is going to go, based on the waves and tides, and there’s been a lot of impact to the stretch of coast here,” Schubert said. “We see a lot of infrastructure damage, sand just disappearing. We want to see where it will move and how fast it will move, and hopefully that will help us guide further sand replenishment along the coast.”

Scientists and planners will be watching this winter closely to see how anticipated storms from an El Nino might impact the project.

“If we get more energetic storms coinciding with high tide, we may see the sand move pretty quickly,” Schubert said.

“We don’t know if it’s going to go offshore, south or north. That’s the point,” Schubert said. “It’s a big puzzle. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of it.”

And the data will give decision-makers more information to evaluate the effectiveness of the project and be informed for future strategies, said UCI lead researcher Daniel Kahl, who will also be analyzing NASA satellite data for the project.

But he warns: It is going to take more than this one shot of sand to bring back the area’s beaches that have seen erosion.

But with the information the UCI researchers are gather, “we should know, is this a sustainable solution? Do we see the benefit for many years, or do we see zero benefit? Without monitoring, we have no idea,” he said.

Orange County Fifth District Supervisor Katrina Foley, who represents the region on the Board of Supervisors and helped with getting the sand redirected to the beaches, hopes it will become a model for similar, ongoing projects from Sunset Beach to San Clemente.

She’s hosting a climate resiliency hearing at the end of the month, with a panel specifically discussing ideas about sand replenishment and management.

“My goal is to gather testimony from experts, so I can build the groundwork into our annual maintenance fund to ensure we are planning for this, just like we plan to repair pot holes, sidewalks and roads,” Foley said. “We need to plan to repair the beach. I’m hoping this successful sand replenishment project we are doing now shows us it works.”

Ideally, regular sand supply like this would be added as a supplement to larger sand projects spearheaded by the Army Corps of Engineers, she said. Two long-awaited federal projects are expected to kick off next year.

San Clemente is expected to get 250,000 cubic yards of sand dredged from Oceanside to place between T-Street and Linda Lane in a $15 million project, while a $23 million project is slotted to receive 1.85 million cubic yards that will seed sand around Sunset Beach to be deposited naturally by the ocean for some 12 miles toward Newport Beach.

“We have to continue to deposit the sand so it builds up over time,” Foley said. “We need more regular sand replacement maintenance program. If we can build back our beaches, people get to enjoy the beach, it’s good for our economy and tourism and it builds a buffer for infrastructure and homes.”

So far, from just south of Doheny State Beach campgrounds to the north end of Capistrano Beach, a new 20-foot wide stretch of beach has been built.

Bike rider Eddie Von stopped to look out at the beach one recent day, recalling a time when there was plenty of sand with 30 more palm trees dotting the shore. Now, at least the few remaining have a sand buffer to protect them from the sea.

“I think it’s wonderful, I think the community is going to benefit greatly,” he said. “We used to have this sand, but it washed out to sea because of the storms. Now, people can come out here as they’ve done in years past, spread out their blankets, take a swim, have lunch and enjoy Mother Nature.”