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Editorial News

February 5, 2005


Humans must build away from path of destruction


Gail Osherenko

What common lessons can we take from the disastrous tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the tragic mudslide in La Conchita, and and the massive makeover of our coastlines in recent storms?

Can we understand that humans are no more able to control nature in our own neighborhood than to prevent the horrendous destruction along the Indian Ocean coastline?

Many years ago I read John McPhee's hair-raising account of a mudslide in the San Gabriel Mountains in "The Control of Nature" (1989). I hoped others would read this book and cease building in the path of potential destruction. But the human desire to rebuild, even where we know land is unstable, is strong. The desire to restore our homes and parks just as they once were tends to prevail.

The tragic loss of life this winter is a strong reminder that we need to work with nature, to expect and respect powerful waves from winter storms, as well as those triggered by earthquakes. Wherever possible, we must place our homes and permanent structures out of the path of destruction.

Over the past year, I attended meetings of the Goleta Beach Working Group and listened to tapes of experts advising the group. I was struck by the disparity in approaches to nature that made it nearly impossible for working group members to reach agreement.

The conservation-minded Coalition to Save Goleta's Beach, perhaps schooled by Mr. McPhee, favors a policy of managed retreat. Instead of fighting nature with a line of rock revetment, they would work with nature by allowing sand to build and retreat on a seasonal basis on some parts of Goleta Beach, while maintaining existing revetment in front of developed facilities.

By letting sand ebb and flow, ecologists explained to the working group, the Parks Department could maintain a healthier beach ecosystem without compromising recreation. Sand sucked into the sea in the winter would return in spring.

Constructing rocks revetments, as the county did in 2003 and again last month, accelerates the loss of sand, while disturbing the beach ecology and impairing access and beach recreation.

Allowing a more ecologically healthy and natural shoreline at Goleta Beach, however, would require relocating gas and sewer lines that run parallel to the shore only a few meters upland. It would require removal of the westernmost parking lot, the spaces most vulnerable to storms. Complete replacement of parking spaces would be accomplished by restriping other lots in the park.

Managed retreat would allow the waves and wind to shape the beach at the western end of the park. The conservationists envision low dunes with native vegetation, rather than dirt berms and an asphalt parking lot.

The park preservationists, on the other hand, believe they can control nature by adding rocks and importing sand. They obtained a temporary permit, good for 30 months, from the Coastal Commission to add to pre-existing rock revetment. After installing the rocks in the fall of 2003, the county imported 80,000 cubic yards of sand to cover the rocks and restore the beach.

This winter's early storms and heavy rains have washed away virtually all of the $2 million invested in beach nourishment last year. The sand, according to ecologists, has not disappeared, but is lying offshore where it may dissipate wave energy during the winter before returning in the spring.

Crews have been working to build up the Goleta Beach shoreline.

On Jan. 10-11, the county parks took advantage of a low tide to place 400 more feet of rock revetment to the western end of the park. When rock moving equipment broke down, they piled beach sand and dirt to create a berm across the remaining 500 feet. 

I watched from my office window as heavy equipment moved the rocks into place and created the berm.

Last week, the county was taking advantage of the largess of dirt that has washed down into Goleta Slough and was hauling it to Goleta Beach and dumping it in the surf zone. Flood Control estimates that this will add roughly 100,000 cubic yards yards of material to the waters. What it will do to the beach ecology is unknown. The most recent studies in California date back to the 1950s.

The county again has saved the parking lot used daily by people headed to UCSB who can't or won't pay for on-campus parking. They've also protected the utility lines, for the moment.

Meanwhile, the county plans to reconvene the working group once its engineer returns with recalculations of the resting shoreline based on data from the recent storms.

The time clock on the 30-month permit is ticking, and no decisions have been made on whether to continue to fight nature or move to a modest form of managed retreat. Under any scenario, the county would retain the recreation areas, restaurant and main bathhouse.

After a natural disaster, our instinct is to rebuild what was lost in the same place and manner. With climate change now well under way in the Arctic and threatening dramatic environmental changes, it is time to realize that humans cannot control nature.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts almost a meter rise in sea level by the end of this century and warns of increased storm surges. Coastal residents around the Indian Ocean would be wise to relocate to higher ground as they reconstruct.

Locally, we, too, can heed the warning. As we emerge from the grief and shock of the suffering of our neighbors at home and abroad, my prayer is that we leave behind the arrogant notion that humans can control nature.

At Goleta Beach, it is time to move the utility lines out of nature's way and plan for the inevitable reshaping of the park.

In Ventura, it's time for the county to work with land and housing trusts to rebuild communities in safer locations and return neighborhoods at risk to agricultural and open space uses that don't put lives at risk. And we could insist that contributions for reconstruction around the Indian Ocean be used to rebuild on higher ground.

The author teaches coastal and ocean law and policy at UCSB and serves on the board of the Environmental Defense Center.