Santa Monica's Beach Is Getting a Climate Change Makeover

Renderings by Mia Lehrer + Associates, courtesy The Bay Foundation

A patch of Santa Monica’s “plumped-up” beach will soon go au naturel thanks to a restoration makeover -- and the reason why is climate change.

Over decades, Santa Monica has expended considerable effort to bring 17 million people a year to walk on its golden sands. What most of those visitors don’t know is that the coastal strand is "nourished" – or, in the words of NASA scientist Bill Patzert, “Botoxed” with added sand. Dredged sand from infrastructure projects and other sources of nourishment has widened the shore to triple what it was a century ago.

That’s why scientists from the nonprofit Bay Foundation, with permission from the city, are testing a way to protect the beach by changing its shape. What makes this project striking is where they’re doing it: on one of the busiest artificial -- ahem, enhanced -- beaches in the state.

On a bright winter’s day, the Bay Foundation’s Rod Abbott runs up the beach, winding up a measuring tape as he goes. He and his colleagues are working within a 3-acre test site north of Santa Monica Pier.

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“I need more string. ... OK, perfect,” Abbott says. “Uh, 138,” he announces. “139,” answers Karina Johnston, who directs the Bay Foundation’s watershed programs.

These measurements are part of characterizing the “before,” Johnston says. “We’re looking at how the topography changes across the beach and how the slope changes over time.”

She walks me around to imagine the “after.” A curvy fence surrounds us on three sides. A sinuous roped path divides it in half. This is where the Bay Foundation will plant native seeds. As plants grow they’ll form root balls, helping sand accrue into low dunes, 1 foot to 3 feet high.

“The way that it will naturally form over time has the potential to be resilient to sea-level rise, wave erosion, storm events, things like that,” Johnston says. “So what we could be looking at is a beautiful softscape form of protection instead of a jetty or a seawall or some of the more industrial options.”

Johnston hoists a soft bag of seed mix on her shoulder, spinning the seeds out as she walks along the fence. She says her favorite is sand verbena, “which has a beautiful little purple flower.”

Sand-grooming machines will skip the testing area for the next couple of years. This winter, advocates and volunteers will be watching closely for signs of rain and the first small sprouting plants, though the project isn’t expected to reach maturity for a couple of years.

Santa Monica’s beach administrator, Judith Meister, says the project could help protect the tourism industry as well as the shore.

“You know, I think we have to factor in the reality of climate change,” Meister says, "so I do think that a lot of different communities are going to be looking at this."

Other plumped-up beaches around the state might look into reseeding for a different reason: Going natural tends to cost less than maintaining the artificial beach. Santa Monica will be looking at that, too.

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