'Re-wilding' a Santa Monica beach to protect against sea level rise

The Santa Monica Beach Restoration Project covers a 2-acre sandy stretch.
The Santa Monica Beach Restoration Project covers a 2-acre sandy stretch. Courtesy of The Bay Foundation

At the north end of Santa Monica Beach, there’s a fenced off 2-acre section that looks a bit unkempt. It’s an experiment in "re-wilding," or restoring the beach to what it looked like before humans altered it. The pilot project, a partnership of The Bay Foundation and Santa Monica, could also help protect the city from sea level rise.

The Bay Foundation first staked out the plot in December 2016, but waited until Tuesday to hold the official ribbon cutting, so visitors could see dune plant seedlings emerging from the sand.

"The theory is that the plants will help spark formation of little dunes, which we’re kind of seeing already," said Bay Foundation Watershed Programs Manager Melodie Grubbs.

California native dune plants grow in a 2-acre plot on the north end of Santa Monica Beach.
California native dune plants grow in a 2-acre plot on the north end of Santa Monica Beach. Courtesy of The Bay Foundation

The Foundation used four different types of native California dune plant species to seed the site.

As windblown sand collects behind the plants, the dunes will grow larger. Because raking and grooming are not allowed in the plot, seaweed and other ocean debris are also collecting, providing the base for new dunes and homes for insects. After 10 years or so, the dunes will eventually grow to 3 or 4 feet tall.

Already, animals are taking notice. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found a threatened western snowy plover nest in the restoration plot last month, the first one discovered in L.A. County in more than 70 years. High winds destroyed the nest, but Chris Dellith, senior fish and wildlife biologist at the agency's Ventura office, was still encouraged. "This is a sign that against all odds, western snowy plovers are making a comeback," he said.

Beach restoration appealed to the city of Santa Monica for other reasons. The city is very concerned about climate change and sea level rise, said Chief Sustainability Officer Dean Kubani, and viewed the pilot project as a way to test a low-cost, more aesthetically-pleasing alternative to sea walls or jetties along the coast.

Grooming and raking are not allowed in the 2-acre plot, which The Bay Foundation hopes will eventually contain 3- to 4-foot high dunes.
Grooming and raking are not allowed in the 2-acre plot, which The Bay Foundation hopes will eventually contain 3- to 4-foot high dunes. Courtesy of The Bay Foundation

Dunes can act as barriers to storm surge or coastal flooding.

A recent report from a team of scientists working for Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Ocean Science Trust found that the sea is rising twice as fast as it did in 1990.

"The California coast is pretty unprotected," Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who co-authored the study, told KPCC. "There’s not really anywhere for the water to go except onto the land."

Eventually, Grubbs envisions dunes up and down the beaches of Santa Monica Bay. "As storms and beach erosion continue into the future and get worse with sea level rise, this will become more of a priority for a lot of cities," she said.

But dunes won’t work everywhere. Balboa Island, for example, is enclosed by sea walls. The island, which is part of Newport Beach, is raising its sea walls by six inches this fall due to routine coastal flooding.

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