July 6, 2022
Written by Alex Wilson in the VC Reporter
When Kiki Patsch visits the beach, she does not take sand for granted like some sunbathers and surfers might.
Patsch has devoted her life to issues related to beaches and coastal erosion as an associate professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University, Channel Islands.
“The idea of managing sand as a resource is really global, and there should be a bright spotlight on it because it is a limited resource,” she said.
Patsch also serves as co-chair on a science advisory committee to a local government agency called BEACON, the Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment. The joint-powers agency founded in 1986 includes leaders from county governments in Ventura and Santa Barbara as well as representatives from the cities of Goleta, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Ventura, Oxnard and Port Hueneme.
Two of the biggest projects BEACON is currently involved in have been underway for decades. One is the half-completed project at Ventura’s Surfers Point to relocate an eroding bike path known as a
“managed retreat.” The other involves efforts to tear down Matilija Dam near Ojai, which should one day allow trapped sediment to flow to the coast and become sand.
WIDELY USED RESOURCE
During a June 23 Ventura Sand Summit, organized by BEACON, Patsch described the complexities and challenges of managing constantly shifting sand as waves and currents push it down the coastline. She explained that the sand along local beaches moves along what’s known as a “littoral cell” which starts at the Santa Maria River, flows around Point Conception, then goes through the dredging operations of local harbors before much of the sand disappears into a giant marine canyon off Point Mugu.
According to Patsch, one of the main things many people don’t understand about sand along the local coastline is that it’s a limited resource.
“I’m trying to get everyone who’s dealing with the coast to understand how it’s moving, where it’s going and why,” she said.
While most sand comes from crumbling mountains that flow down rivers, some sand is created by coastal erosion, so armoring cliffs to protect homes and infrastructure results in less sand on the beaches.
“We’re making a choice to protect what’s behind at the cost of the fronting beach,” said Patsch. “You’re losing a place for that sand to accumulate, and you’re losing a sediment source. So when we make a management choice like that, we’re basically saying that development is more important than the beach. Which is fine, if the managers and planners want to make that choice, they just have to realize, that’s the consequence. We’ve lost the place for the sand to accumulate and you’ve lost a source of sand.”
Patsch said protecting coastal development will become even more challenging as sea level rise continues. To underscore the importance of sand, she talks to people about all the reasons they love beaches.
“People value the beach in very different ways. It inspires music and fashion and our psychological sense of health and wellbeing. How do we reimagine this space so that we can deal with an increase in sea level rise and storms, so we can still maintain this place for all the reasons that we value the coast and the beach? It’s going to be really hard.”
FROM SURFER TO SAND STEWARD
Long before former Ventura Mayor Brian Brennan was elected and later served as BEACON executive director for eight years, he loved the ocean.
Growing up in Ireland on Galway Bay, Brennan and his brother ran along the beach at low tide with their dad. Returning to the shore another day, Brennan said he noticed the beach was gone and covered by the ocean.
“I do recall asking my father about where the beach went when the tide came in,” Brennan said.
“Because all there was, was water. And he explained to me about sand and tides and water and what happened. I was a very young age, maybe 3 or 4, but that’s been ingrained in my brain ever since.”
When Brennan was 8 his family moved to Redondo Beach, which led to a passion for surfing. As soon as he got his driver license, he explored the coast all the way from San Diego to Ventura. Later in life, Brennan managed Chart House restaurants at several locations near shorelines, including the Caribbean and finally Ventura, which made him more aware of the importance of preserving coastlines.
Brennan explained that he helped start the Ventura Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation in 1991 due to concerns over the coastal erosion that was eating away at the bike path at Surfers Point and making it hazardous to get in and out of the ocean. Surfrider meetings were initially held at his restaurant and volunteers spread the charity’s conservation message at street fairs.
Brennan said strategies for protecting Surfers Point evolved over time. ”The city dumped lots of rocks to try to save the bike path, but it only further exacerbated the erosion. If you look up at the top of Surfers Point now, you’ll see where the dune system was put in place, cobble was put in. We sort of reengineered what was there by nature. It’s been doing a fabulous job of protecting the shoreline, but also allowing people a lot of access and recreational opportunities along with habitat.”
He suggested that the Surfers Point managed retreat project could serve as a model for what can be done for other eroding shorelines.
“Now there are recreational spots. The dune system is alive and vibrant; the dune grasses are holding the sand during the winter. It does its job,” he said. “It’s really a living showcase of a shoreline.”
An engineer’s eye for activism
Paul Jenkin serves as the Ventura Surfrider Foundation campaign coordinator and also founded Matilija Coalition, a charity devoted to the efforts to tear down Matilija Dam.
Jenkin was born in Australia, where his father worked in the oil industry, and grew up along other shorelines in places including Texas and Florida.
His first memories of a beach was visiting a family home in Wales in the UK when he was about 2, and he remembers the power of the churning, stormy seas.
“I liked the mystery of the vastness of the ocean,” he said.
His love of everything related to the ocean was enhanced by TV programs featuring Jacques Cousteau. With encouragement from his dad, who worked as an engineer, Jenkin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ocean engineering.
Jenkin’s first ocean engineering job in 1989 was at Naval Base Ventura County, he said.
A friend invited him to a beach clean-up event with the Surfrider Foundation around the time the bike path erosion was becoming a problem at Surfers Point. There was talk of building a seawall to protect the bike path, but because of his background in ocean engineering, Jenkin backed the idea known as managed retreat that he thought would work better in the long run.
“It’s extremely gratifying for me to go out there and see the successful restoration of the dunes and the beach by the Ventura River mouth,” Jenkin said.
He recalled big storms a few years back that inundated some of the lanes in Ventura’s Pierpont neighborhood with ocean water. The newly installed dune system at Surfers Point, however, worked exactly as designed.
“It’s been really successful in that respect. It has gained statewide and even national recognition as a premier example of how to establish coastal resilience,” Jenkin said.
Design work for the second phase of the managed retreat project has been completed and agencies working on the plan, including the city of Ventura, are currently seeking additional funding to complete the project. According to Jenkin, the project has a current estimate of $12 million and he’s hopeful construction could begin after the 2023 Ventura County Fair wraps up.
He noted that slow but steady progress is also being made to remove the Matilija Dam, although that project is also taking decades. Jenkin recalled a visit by U.S Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt 22 years ago, amid hopes that the dam would be long gone by now.
He did point out the recent progress on one major project that’s nearly complete, the replacement of the Santa Ana Bridge in Oak View. This will widen the river to better allow sediment trapped behind the Matilija Dam to flow to the ocean. Other projects are also in the works including another bridge project near the dam at Camino Cielo and changes to the Robles Diversion that funnels water from the Ventura River to Lake Casitas.
Momentum continues to build, as officials with the Ventura County Watershed Protection District that owns the dam continue to secure funding.
“It’s very complicated, but we’ve been successful in bringing over $26 million to the project in the last six years,” Jenkin said. While the project has taken longer than originally expected, he remains optimistic that the dam could be torn down in about 10 years.
In addition to the benefits of restoring sand to beaches, removing the dam will also enhance habitat for endangered steelhead trout which once swam above the dam but are now cut off.
Another issue with potential impacts on the coastline is sea level rise.
‘The reality is that 100 years from now, the California coast is going to look incredibly different,” said Jenkin, adding that it’s hard for most people to wrap their heads around the potential damage to coastal highways, railways, sewage systems and beach homes. “All of that is going to be tremendously impacted and the economic fallout from sea level rise is something that our society really has a head-in-the-sand attitude toward because it is so big, so huge, and so overwhelming that nobody can really be able to plan and act on it.”
COLLABORATION BRINGS HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Marc Beyeler is BEACON’s current executive director and spent over two decades as a senior executive at the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency formed in 1976 to “protect and improve natural lands and waterways, help people access and enjoy the outdoors, and sustain local economies along the length of California’s coast,” according to the agency website.
According to Beyeler, coastal erosion has been an issue locally for over 100 years. One of the biggest ongoing challenges is getting enough money from the federal government to dredge all the local harbors enough to keep the sand moving down the coastline. Money has not always been able to keep up with the sand we need, but during the recent Sand Summit, Congressmember Julia Brownley pledged to do her part to secure adequate funding in the future.
Beyeler noted that the beach at Port Hueneme sometimes disappears if there’s not enough sand dredged from the Channel Islands Harbor, and the U.S. Navy also has important facilities near Point Mugu threatened by erosion. It will take collaboration at many levels of government to protect the coastline, Beyeler said.
“In absence of more effective regional action, and that’s what BEACON is part of, we’re going to lose up to one third to two thirds of our beaches in Southern California, and that includes beaches along the BEACON coast. So there’s urgency about it. But also BEACON is a potential, very innovative attempt to insert itself in a good way. I don’t see just bleak trade-offs. I believe we are creating pathways to actually address long-term trends and threats with long-term approaches.”
While topics related to erosion and sea level rise can cause some people to give up hope, Beyeler sees projects like the one at Surfers Point as pointing in the right direction.
‘The part that’s finished, which mimics nature and creates these nature-based coastal resource improvements, along with protecting the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which is a really big and important economic generator, has been very successful,” Beyeler said. ‘The vision and image of what we need to be doing, we’re already starting. And we need to explain it to people and scale it up.”
Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment, beacon.ca.gov.
Ventura County Chapter of the Surf rider Foundation, ventura. surf rider. org.
Ventura County Watershed Protection District, 800 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura, 805-654-2078, www.vcpublicworks.org/wp/.