by: Tony Keith, RLA

Viewing news footage of the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy this past winter and witnessing firsthand the recurring storm damage from El Nino conditions here on the West Coast, it is clear to me that our coastal cities are increasingly at risk. Whether you accept the science of global warming, or the premise that we are just in a natural cycle, the answer is the same: we must prepare in advance and implement strategies to address a new set of criteria for planning and building along our shoreline or suffer devastating consequences.

Development along the waterfront is set in an extremely dynamic context that is dramatically changing within our lifetime. Few coastal locations host more diverse activities in one place than along our coastal city waterfronts; commerce, industry, recreation, man-made environments and natural beauty all intersect in this unique setting. With critical infrastructure increasingly at risk, we have clear choices to make, new questions to ask and new solutions to seek.

Sea levels have risen about 8 inches in the past 100 years and are projected to rise as much as 55 inches by the end of the century as stated in an analysis prepared for three California state agencies. The Pacific Institute estimates that 480,000 people, a wide range of critical infrastructure, vast areas of wetlands and other natural ecosystems, and nearly $100 billion in property along the California coast are at increased risk from flooding due to sea-level rise if no adaptation actions are taken.

The cities of Santa Barbara and Ventura have taken a unique approach to planning along their waterfronts. Recognizing that business as usual would not adequately address the changing conditions along their coastline, City officials have taken bold steps, signaling a paradigm shift in management methods and stewardship principles along the coast.

One of the most visited coastlines in California, Santa Barbara’s waterfront has it all: a working harbor, sandy beach, historic wharf, two creeks, coastal lagoon, scenic coastal highway, and thousands of visitors and workers converging daily. Just steps from of where State Street terminates at the coast and Stearns Wharf welcomes visitors lays the remnants of a once vast lagoon and wetlands that has become the subject of considerable debate and the focus of a broad-based planning study.

As visitors walk along the Cabrillo beachway, the waters of Mission Creek Lagoon can be rather foul smelling at times. Walk a bit further east and you see a complex of aging buildings, storm culverts and dredge pipes, all built in the tidal zone. These are the remnants of outdated infrastructure and an out-of-balance natural wetlands system that is severely constrained. These features are inextricably linked and require our stewardship in reestablishing their vitality and function.

The City of Santa Barbara’s Creeks Restoration and Water Quality Improvement Division is taking on this challenge by assembling a cadre of consultants and City staff to better understand the intricate interrelationships among the varied environmental features and constructed systems. These efforts will lead to a comprehensive approach that assesses existing conditions with the goal to restore and enhance the lagoon while improving water quality, maintaining or improving existing levels of flood protection and improving public safety and beach access.

Although Santa Barbara is in the early planning stages of this project and conceptual designs are not yet available, this project embodies the sound principles of environmental stewardship with due respect for the required engineering necessary to protect valued upland development. The use of treatment wetlands to enhance native habitat and restore acceptable water quality to the lagoon, reimagining solutions to complex stormwater requirements and preserving popular recreational uses along the shore are but a few of the challenging project objectives being sought.

Just 25 miles south, the City of Ventura has completed the first phase of a precedent-setting project at Surfers Point, the first such project of its type to be approved by the California Coastal Commission. El Nino storms in 1994 washed away portions of the beach and newly constructed bike path and parking lot. Unable to replace the damaged infrastructure in the same location due to earlier Coastal Commission restrictions, the storm-damaged improvements languished for years while an acceptable solution was debated.

After decades of controversy and finally some compromise, City and state entities agreed on a managed shoreline retreat. By rebuilding the parking lot and bike path 65 feet further inland, reshaping the landward improvements to meet new use objectives, restoring critical dunes and native habitat, and incorporating stormwater pre-treatment techniques to capture and remove pollutants before they reach the ocean, the new shoreline park incorporates natural systems to resist natural forces. Innovative engineering and design solutions such as cobble berms, bioswales, permeable recycled asphalt paving and stormwater pre-treatment methods exemplify low-impact development principles that have been integrated into the managed shoreline retreat approach. A surprising feature of the shoreline park is a unique interactive “cobble garden” that invites visitors to build miniature rock towers with local beach cobble, the same cobble used to construct the flexible subterranean cobble berm. The project design has created a new destination at the coast that respects its environment and ensures a 50-year buffer against potential damage from sea level rise.

Just a few miles further down the coast, the California Department of Parks and Recreation is leading by example at San Buenaventura State Beach. By choosing to rejuvenate the aging coastal park by repurposing park improvements into a smaller footprint over 100 feet further inland and re-establishing sand dunes that were obliterated in the 1960s, advancing sand that once threatened to bury buildings is now supporting native plants and wildlife, providing a beneficial buffer against ever higher tides and a rising sea. It should be noted that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, re-establishing sand dune habitats and wetlands is now being considered as a viable means to reduce future flooding along the shore.

As I travel the coastline of California, I see many fine examples of thoughtful and responsible development that is not at risk. There are, however, numerous places along our coastline where I see the shoreline advancing and wonder if the next storm will be the one that devastates. The time is now to re-think how we shall respond, as city officials, as design professionals and as responsible communities. Choosing how and when to respond IS ultimately our choice as we adapt, rebuild and carry on!