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David Revell: Scientific Analysis Girds Goleta Beach 2.0, Naturally

Shifting sands erode arguments against rock options

Goleta Beach is a treasured community asset, one whose fate has been discussed, researched and argued over for the last six years, and which is now being considered by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

David Revell
David Revell

Goleta Beach sits in the middle of a large sand system (called a littoral cell) where sand is moved to the coast through our watersheds, streams and rivers, then along the coast driven by waves and currents from west to east.

I have spent the last 18 years in and around Goleta Beach. As a scientist, I have been studying the coastal processes at Goleta Beach for the last seven years. As a Ph.D. researcher with Gary Griggs of UC Santa Cruz, I was asked to participate in the Goleta Beach Working Group process as a scientific adviser to the county. My personal goal was to conduct rigorous science to support decision-making. Three questions that arose during that stakeholder process drove much of my Ph.D. dissertation research and subsequent peer-reviewed publications.

» What caused the erosion at Goleta Beach?

» What impact does a large El Niño have?

» What are the effects of human alterations on beaches in the Santa Barbara littoral cell?

Initial findings from this research formed the basis for a managed retreat alternative crafted for the county by the environmental engineering firm Philip Williams & Associates (PWA) at the end of the initial stakeholder process. This alternative was not selected as the preferred alternative, and so a second “Park Reconfiguration Alternative” was completed by PWA for the Environmental Defense Center and Surfrider Foundation and submitted to the state Coastal Commission. The Santa Barbara County Parks Department’s proposed “Goleta Beach 2.0” uses the updated scientific basis from the Park Reconfiguration Alternative and enhances the recreational opportunities while balancing uses in Goleta Beach County Park with the use of the beach.

The key findings from my research documented that the erosion at Goleta Beach (starting in 1999) was a delayed response to the 1997-98 El Niño that affected upcoast Sands Beach. As a result, Sands Beach trapped sand for several years, forming an erosion wave that moved down the coast and affecting not only Goleta, but Hope Ranch, More Mesa, Shoreline Park and Leadbetter Beach before reaching the Santa Barbara Harbor in 2007.

The second key finding was that there is no long-term shoreline erosion at Goleta Beach, but rather the beach oscillates, widening and narrowing in response to the abundance of wave energy entering the Santa Barbara Channel. The Pacific decadal oscillation, a more than 30-year climate cycle, affects this wave energy by altering the storm track, the frequency and intensity of El Niños and ultimately the beach at Goleta. During the energetic phase, beaches narrow at Goleta while during calmer phases, we have historically seen beaches widen. The basis for the Goleta Beach 2.0 Project is to move critical infrastructure out of this active oscillating coastal processes zone.

The third key finding of this research showed that the placement (or footprint) of the rocks on Goleta Beach (and other locations down to Ventura Harbor) take up a significant portion of the recreational beach. Any structure that fixes the back of the beach will destroy the beach as sea level rises, because the beach cannot adjust its shape to accommodate changes in coastal processes. 

While most geologists like rocks, those involved in the Goleta Beach discussion have made some statements that show a fundamental misunderstanding of coastal processes. As a coastal geologist, I prefer cobbles and sand and the natural processes that keep beaches healthy. Beaches are our natural flood defenses, which protect our uplands, provide recreational opportunities and support ecosystems.

Goleta Beach 2.0 is grounded in scientific analysis focused on protecting Goleta Beach Park by working with the natural coastal processes. It balances diverse community interests and provides open space now and in the future for both the community and the beach to evolve in response to natural beach width oscillations.

— David Revell Ph.D. is a coastal geomorphologist with Philip Williams & Associates in San Francisco.

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