Anyone who’s recently visited Goleta Beach Park, Arroyo Burro Creek, Isla Vista or any one of a number of local beaches has seen what weather and water can do to the coast.
Between powerful storms and unrelenting waves, many spots along the Santa Barbara County South Coast have taken a pounding over the past couple years.
The poster child of this relentless natural process has been Goleta Beach Park.
Battling the erosion there has been a constant struggle for Santa Barbara County, which often has to jump through coastal-regulation hoops to implement fixes.
Brian Yanez, the county’s deputy parks director, told Noozhawk that about half an acre of parkland has been eroded due to high surf and storms.
Two solutions — sand berms and buried fabric mesh — have not done their job in the face of a determined Mother Nature, he said.
Rock revetments have also been used to protect the shore there, and excess sand from Santa Barbara’s West Beach was recently trucked over to the county’s most-visited park to maintain its sand cover.
An emergency Coastal Commission-sanctioned rock revetment was recently put in place after February’s powerful storm, which combined with strong waves to damage the Goleta Beach pier’s connection to shore.
Its northernmost planks were removed as that section of the pier is reconstructed.
Another area constantly monitored for erosion is Isla Vista, where popular properties sit alongside — and in some places, over — the bluffs.
The soft shale bluffs erode at a rate of several inches to a foot per year, due to wave action along their base and rain and water runoff along the tops. In response, Del Playa Drive property owners have to cut back their buildings every so often.
In January, one landlord decided to demolish four of his Del Playa Drive units after a chunk of the cliffs fell away and took part of the 6600-block building's backyard and balcony with it.
Only a month or so later, a tree in the backyard of a 6500-block house dropped onto the beach, leaving a chunk of that backyard missing.
And just last week, 15 residents in two 6700-block units found new housing after the back bedrooms of both apartments became within 5 feet of the cliff edge.
“We lost a matter of about 3 feet during (the Feb. 17) storm,” Chris Mercier, senior property supervisor at Wolfe & Associates, told Noozhawk at the time.
At least one other Del Playa property is being scaled back in response to erosion.
The recent storm that damaged the Goleta pier and the 6700-block Del Playa property also tore up a small portion of the recently-completed upper Arroyo Burro Creek restoration project in Santa Barbara's Barger Canyon.
In addition to what has so far been the wettest winter since the start of California’s record drought, recent wave action has been stronger than usual.
While last winter’s El Niño came as a bitter disappointment for Southern Californians hoping for much-needed rain, the perennial weather event was one of the most powerful on record in terms of wave energy, according to a study published last month in Nature Communications.
The result, researchers found, was shorelines along California retreating beyond historical extremes after being pounded by powerful waves.
Local coastal erosion has “definitely been getting worse,” said Patrick Barnard, a coastal geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the study’s lead author. “We’ve seen kind of a steady decay in a lot of the sites we’re monitoring over the last 20 years in the area.”
Most Santa Barbara beaches are at “the most-landward or most-eroded position they’ve ever reached,” he said.
Barnard told Noozhawk that this “means that recovery is more difficult, and it leaves these areas more vulnerable to subsequent winter storms, like what we’re seeing right now with Goleta getting hammered.”
The drought has only exacerbated the erosion situation, he said. Rivers and creeks have been depositing less sand at beaches as well.
Barnard said he doesn’t expect waves and winters to changing dramatically, but projects more El Niño events to be stronger ones.
David Hubbard, president of Santa Barbara-based Coastal Restoration Consultants, explained that the width and thickness of beaches fluctuate during the year as they respond to stronger waves in the winter.
Depending on a beach’s natural characteristics and width, its seasonal narrowing can be anywhere from 30 to 150 feet, said Hubbard, an associate specialist with UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute who was involved in the USGS-led study.
However, there’s no long-term trend of beaches themselves shrinking as coasts decay, he added.
“The beach adjusts to the coastal erosion, and the beach moves,” he said. “The beach is not fixed — it’s dynamic.”
Hubbard emphasized that something like coastal erosion cannot easily be attributed to one or a few factors.
“For something that looks so simple, it’s actually a complicated system.”
Hubbard and Barnard agreed that sea-level rise poses a long-term risk to coastal habitats and human urban areas.
The county’s long-range planning division has been modeling sea-level rise through the year 2100 and is beginning the difficult task of laying out policies to address the issue, said county supervising planner Mindy Fogg.
She said that the worst-case scenario puts sea-level rise over that timespan at 4 to 5 feet, though the effects of any rise over the next several years would be negligible.
Barnard characterized the erosion situation at places like Isla Vista and Goleta Beach as “acute now,” but noted that there’s still time to make careful, forward-looking decisions about local coastal resources.
“It’s something we really have to approach holistically and from a regional context, and not a site-by-site band-aid approach,” he said.