Los Angeles Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Rosanna Xia, visited UC Santa Barbara on Feb. 8 to discuss how sea level rise is threatening California coastal communities from Crescent City down to Imperial Beach.

Xia sat down with Director of UCSB’s Ocean & Coastal Policy Center (OCPC) Charles Lester to discuss her recent book “California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline.” Her talk was part of the larger public “Imagining California Series,” hosted by UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (IHC) at the Humanities and Social Sciences Building. 

“California Against the Sea” is a detailed anthology of the 1200 mile California coastline and the people who call it home, from the distant past to the not-so-distant future. 

Intertwined with insight from several UC Santa Barbara researchers, Xia’s book is an interdisciplinary investigation. She dissects how the interplay of science, politics, stewardship and land use have shaped the dynamic California coastline while centering Indigenous narratives, such as those of the local Chumash people. Her prose — poised, yet urgent -– are a call to action as the Pacific ocean edges ever-closer into the coastline. 

Her talk at the IHC was moderated by Lester, whose research was featured in Xia’s book. Throughout the talk, Xia and Lester touched on the adverse ways Californians are trying to impose permanence — such as seawalls — onto the impermanent coast, in an attempt to preserve coastal communities from sea level rise. 

Cautiously, Xia advised the audience. “The ocean is moving in, the coast is supposed to move with it, and we’re supposed to move with the coast,” she said. “The longer we try to hold this line, the more it is going to cost us.” 

Sea level rise and coastal erosion are issues all too familiar to residents of Santa Barbara and Isla Vista. SHIUAN CHENG / DAILY NEXUS

As she highlights in “California Against the Sea,” the boundaries between coast and sea are always shifting. “In the last 100 years, the sea rose less than 9 inches in California; by the end of this century the surge could be greater than 6, possibly 7 feet,” Xia wrote.

Even for the people who do not live to see this change, the question remains: How do communities transform for the inevitable future? 

As California moves toward mitigating the effects of sea level rise, Xia argues that the way people assign value to tangible entities, like land, needs to be critically examined. “Who benefits from preserving the world the way it is today? Whose property? Whose health?” Xia said. 

Xia spent a large portion of the talk discussing the processes of resilience and restoration in small coastal communities, topics in her book’s section, “Missing Pieces.” 

Speaking on resilience, she drew the audience’s attention to a small, overlooked Northern California town she visited while writing her book, Marin City. 

For decades now, when the tide is high or there is a heavy rain, Marin City becomes a flooded, trapped wetland. It is an issue expected to get worse with sea level rise, but it’s not at the forefront of residents’ minds. 

For years, they have been afflicted with unexplained cancer and high asthma rates. Xia explains that for this community, the attention of sea level rise became an opportunity to address decades-long public and environmental health issues. 

“Restoring green space into a community is a climate change issue [and] a resilience issue” Xia said. In addition, she underscored how sea level rise became an opportunity to clean up the toxic contaminated soil that has long plagued Marin City.

Xia calls into question how people restore land matters. “Nowhere in California can things be restored exactly the way things were before,” she said. “How do you bring back the past in a way that will survive the future?” 

Currently, UCSB and, by extension, Isla Vista — a coastal campus and community —have committed to adapt to and plan for sea level rise.

For the UCSB campus, the state of California requires it to have a sea level rise adaptation strategy. The responsibility of this strategy plan largely falls onto the OCPC guided by Lester. 

“The University is working on this strategy which imagines a future where we don’t try to protect everything with seawalls. And the reason for that is because seawalls are bad for beaches,” Lester said in a separate interview with the Nexus. “The plan expresses this intent to try to avoid that by thinking proactively about, for example, moving back infrastructure or public access along the bluff top, as needed, to adapt to the erosion that is going to continue and likely get worse.” 

Last week’s coastal balcony collapse on the 67 block of Del Playa Drive, due to coastal erosion after the recent heavy rains, is a poignant reminder that no community is immune from sea level rise. However, coastal bluff collapse is not an uncommon occurrence for the community of Isla Vista. 

“The issue of sea level rise and adaptation is a very real one, for I.V. … It’s been experiencing erosion there for a long time, really since we have the Coastal Act, 50 years ago,” Lester said.

He then went on to discuss Santa Barbara County’s own efforts. “The county does have a program in place to try to systematically retreat development on that blufftop which is in danger and not safe … it’s actually a good example of statewide jurisdiction being proactive [about this problem],” he said. “Which is something Rosanna’s book frames for. How can we get ahead of this thing that is happening, sea level rise, in a deliberate, planned way?”

One does not need to be a coastal property owner or a Del Playa resident, however, to participate in the discourse and mitigation of sea level rise; the ocean belongs to everyone. In California, the right to access the coast is guaranteed to every state resident, as enacted in the Coastal Act of 1976. 

“There is so much shared connection in the ocean,” Xia said toward the conclusion of her talk. She advises that, as California grapples with sea level rise, inhabitants’ collective admiration of and appreciation for its iconic coastlines remains a uniting force in efforts toward adaptation. 

Expanding upon this, Xia also noted how non-native California residents are guests on the land. This notion, a point also mentioned in her book, comes from the Tongva Nation concept of kuuyam, which means “guest” in Tongva. Xia was first introduced to the concept of kuuyam by scholar Charles Sepulveda, a Tongva and Acjachemen. Today, Tongva people currently inhabit Tovangar, known presently as the greater Los Angeles Basin.

“Letting go of that personal attachment to a place takes courage,” Xia wrote about the importance of centering kuuyam as California adapts to sea level rise. “But by being better guests, by reframing our relationship with place and with the native people of this land, could kuuyum ultimately lead to more people taking care of the environment, this coast, this land?” 

A version of this article appeared on pg. 14 of the Feb. 15, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.