A newly approved Federal Aviation Administration study will monitor the effects of tidal restoration and the risk of collisions between aircraft and birds at the Goleta Slough.
The $1.5 million dollar project, which the FAA approved on Oct. 2, will likely be funded by State Coastal Conservancy grants and will generate information regarding the delicate relationship between the Santa Barbara Airport and its adjacent wetlands. John Ledbetter, principal planner for the airport, said the study is the culmination of years of work on both sides of the issue.
“The airport has been working with environmental groups for 10 years to get to the point where the FAA will have this study,” Ledbetter said. “The Goleta Slough is a globally important birding area.”
The bird species in and around the Goleta Slough include ducks, shorebirds and crows. The slough contains both ponds, or “seasonal wetlands,” and areas of tidal flow. Ledbetter said seasonal wetlands do not drain and tend to attract big flocking waterfowl, whereas areas of tidal circulation attract smaller birds.
The FAA study, which will monitor and document the status of wildlife in the area and the effects of gradual restoration of tidal flow, will begin pending its approval by the California Coastal Conservancy. The study is expected to take two to three years to complete.
“The study will establish scientific evidence about what types of birds, what are their patterns and how does that affect bird strikes,” Ledbetter said.
While the airport closely monitors collisions between planes and birds – called “bird strikes” – Ledbetter said the frequency of strikes is difficult to record. Some pilots do not report bird strikes and they are usually detected when dead birds are found on or around the runway. Also, he said no human fatalities at Santa Barbara Airport have occurred due to a bird strike. The strikes usually only cause scratches on the aircraft involved.
Because many airports, such as those in San Francisco, Seattle and Sacramento, are located in or near environmentally sensitive wetlands, the results of the study will have national significance.
“The FAA and their wildlife biologist will determine the success of the study,” Ledbetter said. “If successful, the airport would move forward in an incremental way in restoring the slough.”
Drew Bohan, executive director of Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper, an organization advocating the protection of the channel’s watersheds, said he agrees the study is necessary.
“We think it’s great,” Bohan said. “It isn’t anything new. The FAA committed to this a long time ago. Our concern is that the FAA will have to approve the tidal restoration.”
Bohan said the study is important to students at UCSB because the Goleta Slough serves as a direct provider of fish – such as halibut, flounder and sole – and a flood control area that soaks up heavy rains
“It’s in the students’ backyard,” Bohan said. “Activities higher in the watershed such as development, greater erosion and sedimentation can clog up the slough.”
The Goleta Slough is the major environmentally sensitive habitat area in the Goleta coastal zone according to an environmental impact report by the FAA and the City of Santa Barbara.
The new FAA study will also document the effects of the Santa Barbara Airport expansion plan.
“It’s not just an airport,” Bohan said, “it’s a hugely important habitat area. Filling in 15 acres of the Goleta Slough and paving it over with concrete is a bad idea because the Goleta Slough will be damaged.”
The Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper and the City of Goleta have filed suit against the California Coastal Commission and the City of Santa Barbara. They believe the airport expansion project violates the California Coastal Act of 1976, which lays out specific protections for the environmentally sensitive coastal zone.
Ledbetter said the study would be peripherally related to the Santa Barbara Airport expansion plan.
“There will be some impact to the wetlands related with the runway expansion,” Ledbetter said. “The impact will be mitigated by the experiment.”