In 2001, the university replaced a 30-year-old fence that lined the east campus bluffs because it became damaged due to erosion.
At present, four years after the repair, the university is looking to replace the fence again since several stretches of it hang in midair as the bluff beneath it has continued its inland retreat.
The steady, relentless cliff erosion on the east side of campus – caused by weather patterns, wave action, irrigation and landscaping – has university officials looking for ways to protect buildings and roads that 20 years from now may have much closer ocean views.
Besides fencing off the bluffs’ edge and posting warning signs, officials are considering options from rerouting water drainage to the construction of expensive rock buffers. While it has no set date for choosing a solution, the university must eventually submit any plans to the California Coastal Commission (CCC) for review before action may be taken.
Donna Carpenter, acting vice chancellor of Administrative Services, said she has organized a work group of faculty and staff to research and find practical counter-erosion solutions. The group includes Marc Fisher, associate vice chancellor for Campus Design and Facilities, chemistry professor Richard Watts, Housing and Residential Services executive director Wilfred Brown, and representatives from UCSB Environmental Health & Safety and Facilities Management. Carpenter said she also recently invited geology professor Ed Keller and geology professor emeritus Arthur Sylvester to join the group because of their knowledge of the cliff-erosion process. The group has already met several times this quarter to discuss the university’s options.
However, Shana Gray, a coastal program analyst from the CCC’s Ventura office, said the university may suggest structural projects to protect the cliffs from erosion, but the CCC prefers to resolve coastal problems by leaving the smallest impact possible. Many structural projects can create excess debris and limit beach access. Although finding alternative, less obstructive solutions is ideal, she said the commission will judge all plans to counter erosion on a case-by-case basis.
The commission rarely grants such approval because of its tendency to avoid “stabilization projects” that would help slow erosion, Fisher said. He said the CCC believes changing the natural condition of the cliffs could alter the motion of the waves and the migration of sand from the campus to Santa Barbara Harbor.
“I don’t think there’s a simple, ideal solution,” Fisher said. “I think whatever solutions are proposed will have a lot of positives and negatives. [It] will be a much more complicated process to figure out what is best for the coast. It’s not just protecting [the campus’] assets, it’s really about protecting the entire California coastline.”
In years past, the commission has approved development projects like Manzanita Village, but only after moving the planned location of the buildings much farther back from the beach, Fisher said. Because of the change, he said, the residence hall is situated in a spot that would theoretically prevent future erosion damage to the buildings. He said buildings constructed in recent years on the east side of campus were given the same space guidelines.
Unlike its counterpart, Fisher said Anacapa Hall was built in the 1960s [[ok]] in a location that, by today’s standards, is far too close to the edge of the cliff. However, it may not have to be completely demolished as the bluffs get nearer to it, he said.
“If you can’t stop the erosion, you may have to take down a piece of the building, but not the whole building,” Fisher said. “[As for Lagoon Road], I think the CCC would just suggest that you move the road.”
Fisher said rerouting the road, which skirts the eastern edge of campus, may be a possibility.
On the other hand, Sylvester said using creative engineering could allow the university to save the road without moving it. He said it might be possible to make a sort of underground bridge using concrete pillars poured into large holes drilled into Lagoon Rd., he said.
Sylvester said there are other more feasible ways to counter the effects of erosion, or at least slow it. One strategy the campus has already applied to slow erosion is rock revetments, he said. A revetment consists of large boulders placed on top and to the side of each other, and acts as a buffer between the cliffs and the waves, slowing the effects of erosion – but not stopping it completely.
“Only the very biggest of waves can ever hope to move [the boulders],” Sylvester said. “If they do then you come in with a crane later on and replace the rocks and stack them up all over again.”
Currently, the UCSB Marine Science Institute (MSI) has a revetment protecting its base. Sylvester said he is unsure how effective it has been in protecting the MSI because he did not take measurements of the area prior to the structure’s placement. There are several examples of revetments along the coast between Santa Barbara and Ventura, Sylvester said. The city of Goleta is also considering seeking approval from the CCC for a revetment for Goleta Beach, he said.
Gray said the university requested the CCC’s approval in 1997 for another revetment along the campus beach, but the commission denied its request for reasons she said she is unsure about.
Revetments do have drawbacks, Sylvester said. He said the rock structures can cost over a million dollars – money the university may have a difficult time finding – and are an eyesore for beachgoers. They also slow the migration of sand from the campus beach to Goleta, where it eventually settles in the Santa Barbara Harbor. Placing revetments on one portion of the cliff may cause wave power to be focused on unprotected areas, causing faster erosion in select parts. Revetments, like many structural solutions to erosion, can potentially limit beach access. For these reasons, Sylvester said, the CCC seldom gives permission to install revetments.
Despite their drawbacks, Tye Simpson, director of Campus Planning and Design said revetments are one the best options available to slow erosion. Under a California statute, he said, revetments are allowed if the protection of existing facilities, like Anacapa Hall, is at stake. However, he said the CCC also does not generally approve of revetments because of problems that have arisen with their use in other areas of California.
Sylvester said a more expensive, but less intrusive, means of protecting the beach would be to widen it with more sand, protecting the edge of the cliff from contact with waves. Between 1969 and 1983, when the beach was about three times its current width, waves could not reach the bluffs and therefore could not cause wave erosion. By dumping enough sand proportional to the amount dumped on the beach during those years, the sand could potentially stop the waves, he said.
The feasibility, however, of this strategy is low, Sylvester said. To accomplish this task, sand would be need to be brought in from Santa Barbara Harbor and then dumped at the west end of Del Playa Drive . From this point, Sylvester said, the waves would naturally carry the sand down to the east side of campus, depositing it on the beach. The process would be extremely expensive and would require an endless cycle of replenishing sand, he said.
Until a more permanent structural change can be applied to the cliffs, the university is applying several shorter-term, less obtrusive solutions, Simpson said.
“[Erosion] is a long-term marine process,” he said. “What the campus has done in the past is to assure that some portions of its activities don’t contribute to the natural processes in artificial ways.”
Plants contribute to erosion because their roots crack the cliff rocks as they grow, and storm and irrigation runoff flow into these cracks, forcing rocks further apart. To counter this, Fisher said the campus has begun efforts to re-landscape portions of the cliffs. Simpson said the university is also currently looking for funding to remove storm drain culverts from the face of the bluffs and redirect runoff water into the lagoon.
After describing the problems of erosion on campus and its possible solutions, Sylvester said there was no way to properly judge if nature, by itself or human efforts, could bring the beach back to its former greatness, like in his 1975 photographs.
Geological time scales do not correspond to campus planning schedules.
“We tend to think that things are pretty static, but really they do change,” he said.