The seas off our beaches are rising. Is it too late to adapt to the change? That’s the task that’s fallen into the laps of Melissa Hetrick and Dan Gullett, two experienced long-range planners for the City of Santa Barbara. These two now find themselves spearheading City Hall’s efforts to come to terms with sea-level rise — an undertaking epic in scope, mind boggling in its implications. Imagine “planning” for the ice age, only in reverse — and it’s happening much, much faster.
By the end of the century — only 81 years away — seas off the coast of Santa Barbara are expected to rise anywhere from 5 to 6.6 feet. That’s if nothing is done to reduce the world’s carbon emissions. In 2018, those emissions went up globally. Here in Santa Barbara, they increased by 15 percent. This variation in predictions, from 5 to 6.6 feet, is based on the best available science measuring how quickly carbon in the atmosphere causes Arctic ice sheets to melt. That knowledge is constantly developing, as is our limited understanding of the ice sheets themselves. This explains why a study two years ago projected a five-foot sea-level rise for Santa Barbara, while one released in November 2018 — by the same consulting firm — concluded it could be as much as 6.6 feet.
None of this reflects the alarming new evidence just reported in the journal Science indicating the world’s oceans have heated up 40 percent faster than projected five years ago. In the years 2017, 2016, and 2015, ocean temperatures were the hottest ever recorded. The hotter the water, the more volume it occupies. More water plus hotter water equals higher seas.
This past August, the City Council’s subcommittee, led by planners Hetrick and Gullett, began considering various strategies for adapting to this encroaching reality. Three councilmembers and representatives from the city’s water, harbor, and parks and recreation commissions joined them to discuss what happens when the sea rises by 2.5 feet and then what happens when it increases to 6.6 feet.
A rising tide may lift all boats, but it also thrashes any infrastructure that happens to be in the way. In the City of Santa Barbara, that includes El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant, the desalination plant, the harbor, and the airport, and that’s just for starters. Closer to the soul of Santa Barbara, sea-level rise threatens to gobble up nearly two-thirds of the city’s 94 acres of beaches. Aside from losing 66 acres of beach, it would also adversely affect 1,200 parcels — public and private — making much of that land utterly unusable.
The tone of the discussion is far different than it was about 12 years ago when then-councilmember Helene Schneider teamed up with UCSB scientist Bruce Caron to launch the now infamous Light Blue Line project. Mixing public science and guerrilla street theater, Schneider secured city funding to paint a light blue line throughout downtown, showing where the ocean would be if it rose 10 feet. Real estate interests sued, arguing that it would destroy property values. Schneider withdrew her proposal. This time, the real estate industry has been quiet. As Caron noted, “A whole lot has changed in the past 10 years in terms of our understanding, but not much has been done.”
Sea-level rise is violent. It does not remotely function like a bathtub gradually filling up. Think what will happen when churning winter storms, pounding waves, and rising tides meet the raging waters rushing down Central Coast creeks. Think of what happens when those two immensely powerful forces crash together, causing vast invasive tidal surges. Low-lying neighborhoods will be flooded out. Engineers call this “a hydraulic leap.” People living there call it a disaster. For neighborhoods between Cabrillo Boulevard and Highway 101 — the Funk Zone for example — tidal inundation will become a regular fact of life. There’s no waterproofing for tidal inundation.
This past Wednesday, January 9, when the subcommittee on sea-level-rise adaption met, Hetrick talked about “a rainbow of options,” and private environmental consultant Nick Garrity talked about “tools in the toolbox” — beach nourishment, dikes, breakwaters, revetments, and managed retreat, to name a few. But any response will be expensive and complicated. There are no magic bullets.
For example, current projections indicate that three stretches of Highway 101 between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria will likely be inundated. Though outside the city’s jurisdiction, one of these stretches — nearly a mile long — lies adjacent to the Andrée Clark Bird refuge. According to preliminary CalTrans studies, the solution is to raise these affected areas up by six feet. The preliminary price tag is $1.2 billion — already deemed prohibitively expensive.
It so happens the city’s Creeks Division is already pursuing more modest engineering improvements to the bird refuge — for smell and habitat reasons — that will also help with sea-level rise. The plan is to enlarge the floodgate now preventing ocean waters from migrating into the lagoon. The new floodgate will not only keep water out when needed, but also allow water in — which will help soak up some of the increase surges. Plans to create beach dunes across Cabrillo Boulevard from the lagoon will also help anchor beach sands.
In the lingo of adaptation planners, options run the gamut of “gray to green,” the former typically referring to beach-hardening devices — jetties, revetments, breakwaters — the latter looking to restore natural processes that have been short-circuited along the way. Up the coast, for example, the University of California, Santa Barbara, is working with the Coastal Conservancy to restore 64 acres of wetlands that had been transformed into the Ocean Meadows Golf Course in the 1960s. By creating a more gradual slope than the golf course had, the native pickleweed will be given a viable path of retreat from rising sea levels. This will also help absorb much of the surge volume that would otherwise cause flooding on adjacent properties — which include not only the popular Goleta Beach but also the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, all of Old Town Goleta, two sewage treatment plants, a gas-company facility, and major electrical trunk lines.
In the City of Carpinteria, Parks Director Matt Roberts believes that the beaches must be replenished with coarse grain sands and rocks. About 50,000 cubic yards a year, he said, would make a real difference in being able to create vegetated dunes. “The spine needed for all of this to happen is cobble, the smaller rocks that are caught by debris basins,” he said. “If we don’t have that, we can’t establish a living shoreline.” Carpinteria has the largest debris basin on the South Coast, with a holding capacity of 350,000 cubic yards. That basin performed spectacularly well last year during the 1/9 Debris Flow, protecting Carpinteria from untold disaster. But then, all that debris was trucked to other cities for disposal. Roberts vehemently objected, but permitting requirements make it impossible to deposit the caught debris onto Carpinteria beaches, where he says it is desperately needed to fight sea rise. “I get it,” Roberts said, “but in the meantime, we’re still operating from some Boy Scout manual written in the 1960s,” he exclaimed. “We need to build a new culture that understands.”
Not everyone agrees. As recently as 2017, the county supervisors approved a plan to slowly decommission 5 of the 11 debris basins located on the South Coast. Fighting sea-level rise was listed as a key justification, but after the devastation of the 1/9 Debris Flow, those plans have been quietly but resoundingly scuttled.
There are no easy answers. When the city’s adaption subcommittee focused on bluff preservation, Hetrick and Garrity concluded, for example, that beach re-nourishment would be of marginal benefit. Any new sands deposited, Hetrick said, would soon be ferried down steam by coastal flows. Building sea walls, she said, would have a similar effect on existing beaches. The scouring energy generated as waves hit the walls would soon strip the beaches of their sand, and the bluffs would eventually vanish. It’s too soon to predict what recommendations the committee will make. But based on last week’s deliberations, it appears a hybrid approach is inevitable.
Any plan, the subcommittee was told, will take at least 10 years. The permitting requirements — approval by the Coastal Commission and Army Corps of Engineers will be necessary — will be lengthy and difficult for anyone. New rules all but doom any private property owners hoping to get permits for sea walls. Government agencies seeking to protect ocean-related functions have a better shot. But it’s tricky.
City Hall’s adaptation subcommittee considered a plan that would require a specific response to a specific rise in sea level. But as Harbor Commissioner Jim Sloan pointed out, that’s much easier said than done. It’s one thing to know that the sea level is rising; it’s quite another to know at any given moment by how much. “There’s a lot of controversy about how fast it will rise. We need to agree what the measuring tool will be,” he said, “and who’s the keeper of the yardstick.”
As the city struggles to adapt to the intensifying rise in sea levels, the larger Santa Barbara community is commemorating the anniversaries of two tragic environmental disasters — Union Oil’s January 28 off-shore oil-rig blow-out that devastated the Santa Barbara coastline 50 years ago, awakening the nation to the dangers ahead, and the first anniversary of the Thomas Fire debris flow that killed 23 people in the once-tranquil haven of Montecito. The climate has changed. As Sigrid Wright of the Community Environmental Council points out, “It’s not about polar bears and Africa anymore; it’s right here, right now.”