Goleta Beach vs. Winter Swells

Boulders Protect Picnic Grounds, but What About the Beach?

Rocks are being added to the shoreline in an effort to stop the erosion of Goleta Beach from winter storms
Paul Wellman

Goleta Beach County Park is still a muddy mess, three weeks after heavy surf clawed out a big chunk of parkland, displaced benches and barbecue grills, undermined the pier, and, for good measure, ripped out a $350,000 barrier of plastic mesh that had been stacked against the bluffs last spring.

Piles of kelp, logs, and mangled plastic have been hauled away, and work crews are shoring up the Goleta Pier landing. The excavators have finished dropping boulders along 950 feet of beach, filling in the gaps between older rock barricades, and lengthening the whole structure by a third. The $275,000 project was the best way to protect the beloved picnic tables and 600 free parking spaces of the county’s most heavily used park, officials said.

“The county has exhausted a lot of emergency options, and that’s where we’ve ended up,” said Brian Yanez, who took over as deputy parks director last fall. “We are definitely trying to protect our assets. Is rock the right answer? It’s definitely doing its job as we speak.”

Rocks are being added to the shoreline in an effort to stop the erosion of Goleta Beach from winter storms
Paul Wellman

But environmentalists say the new boulders have obliterated the last bit of Goleta Beach that was available for public use, except at very low tide. For about the 20th time in as many years, the county is transporting more sand to the beach this week ​— ​about 300 truckloads from creek catch basins. If past experience is any guide, it won’t last long.

“We’ve tried rock revetment, and it destroys the beach,” said Everett Lipman, a UCSB physics professor who is vice chair of the local Surfrider Foundation chapter. “We’ve got no beach because it’s all underwater. We’ve got no park because it’s all mud now. I think we have to try other things than hard structures.”

As the climate warms, extended droughts and extreme surf may increasingly threaten the California coast, scientists say. This is the third winter in four years that Goleta Beach Park has taken a beating in the winter swells. Even behind the boulders, the park bluff is retreating.

In March 2014, big rollers smashed the windows at the Beachside Bar Café, swamped the carpets, and briefly carried off the manager, who was out on the pier. In the winter of 2015-2016, during one of the most powerful El Niño events in recorded history, record-high swells carved out huge crevasses and blowholes in the bluffs.

California coastal policy generally frowns on new seawalls and rock barricades because they spoil the view, are hard to climb over, and reduce public beach space. They can accelerate beach “scouring” because there is less beach to dissipate the waves. But during last month’s storms, citing an “unexpected occurrence in the form of erosion” that was threatening park structures, the state Coastal Commission granted emergency permits for more boulders on Goleta Beach. The project connects two previous barricades, about 1,800 feet long overall, that were installed more than a decade ago at the east end in front of the café and at the west end near the UCSB campus. The county has until mid-May to apply for a long-term permit for the latest section, which is underlain with plastic mesh.

Paul Wellman

Ed de la Torre, a spokesperson for Friends of Goleta Beach Park, said the additional boulders were long overdue. Visitors often drive to the park in bad weather just to sit in their cars and watch the pounding surf. “You can’t take this park away from the people who are using it,” he said. “The county put those rocks in just in time. They were really serious about it, finally, and they did a bang-up job.”

Lipman said he photographs the beach weekly, documenting its disappearance in front of the rock barricades. He opposed the emergency permits, telling the commission that the county “failed to identify any structures of significant value that are in imminent danger.” Moreover, Lipman stated, “Typical winter conditions cannot, by any reasonable standard, be considered an emergency.”

Lipman contends that the county should have tried stacking layers of smaller rocks, or cobble, against the park bluffs. “We’re not extremists: We recognize that there are competing interests here,” he said in an interview. “But all they want is to armor the park. They don’t consider that the beach will get destroyed.”

Several years ago, Surfrider proposed a plan for “managed retreat” at Goleta Beach Park ​— ​specifically, the removal of the 1,200-foot-long rock barricade that was built at the west end in the early 2000s, and two parking lots there. (As of Wednesday, those parking lots were still closed.)

But the county rejected Surfrider’s proposal, and, in late 2015, the Coastal Commission issued an after-the-fact permit for the west-end barricade. Within months, amid reports of more damage from heavy surf, the commission approved the construction of a $350,000 emergency barrier of “geotextile” mesh ​— ​layers of plastic fabric filled with compacted dirt and stones ​— ​for unprotected portions of the park bluff. (Surfrider did not favor the plan.)

The geotextile barrier was finished in April 2016. It was heralded as a “softer” approach to coastal protection ​— ​until the waves tore it up a few weeks ago. In the aftermath of February’s storms, tangles of plastic lay strewn about the beach, and yards of soggy black mesh drooped from the bluffs. Large pieces of plastic soon made their way past the mouth of Goleta Slough.

High surf during a February storm
Paul Wellman

In the end, there are no easy answers for a man-made park that was built on artificial fill in 1945 on top of a seasonal sand spit. Historically, records show, Goleta Beach has been as wide as 400 feet. Like every other South Coast beach, geologists say, it was replenished chiefly with Santa Ynez River sand that made its way around Point Conception in the ocean currents. But the river sand was cut off when the Bradbury Dam was built in 1953 to form Lake Cachuma.

“There is sand stored offshore that the summer waves will bring back in,” said Art Sylvester, professor emeritus of geology at UCSB. “But it’s a finite supply, and it’s depleted every winter.”

Between 1994 and 2011, reports show, the county transported a million cubic yards of sand and mud to Goleta Beach by pipeline, truck, or barge from the Goleta Slough, Atascadero Creek, Santa Barbara Harbor, and West Beach. That’s an average 50,000 cubic yards of sand per year, or the equivalent of 5,000 truckloads.

Last year, state records show, the Coastal Commission approved long-term permits for both the west-end barricade of boulders at Goleta Beach and the geotextile barrier on the understanding that they “would continue to remain buried at all times and become exposed only periodically.” But that turned out to be wishful thinking.

By the time the commission voted on the geotextile barrier last October, the waves had already scoured off much of the sand that was covering it. As for the west-end barricade, it was covered in December 2015 as part of a sand berm that the county built along the entire length of the park ​— ​but the sand was dissipated within two months. In violation of the county’s permit, the revetment has remained uncovered for more than half a year, making it difficult for the public to get to the beach.

This winter, the county spent $75,000 to bring in 300 truckloads of sand from the Santa Barbara Harbor to cover the revetment. But the sand washed away within days and is long since on its way back to the harbor.

“We’re trying to meet all the conditions in our permits, but we haven’t had such good luck,” said Yanez, the deputy county parks director. “We’ve made some attempts and been beaten by Mother Nature.”

Rocks are being added to the shoreline in an effort to stop the erosion of Goleta Beach from winter storms
Paul Wellman


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.