Rising to the Occasion: CCBER Tackles Surging Sea Levels

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By Natalie Overton

Dr. Lisa Straatton and her team at the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity & Ecological Restoration (CCBER) have embarked on a mission to transform a golf course into a diverse restored habitat: an estuary teeming with native species, a space for passive recreation and active research for UCSB students and faculty. Even better, it’s specially graded to withstand the sea level rise that the Santa Barbara community is bracing for in years to come.

Dr. Stratton isn’t new to the area. She’s been running CCBER since 2005. So when she spotted this golf course, she saw its potential to benefit the surrounding community. This patch of land, which is now called the North Campus Open Space (NCOS) project, was an estuary in the 1870s, but was filled in and built up to serve as a golf course in the 1960s. Dr. Stratton and CCBER are now bringing the area back to something close to its original state , but this patch of green wasn’t their focus at first.

Initially, she and her team were set to restore the South Parcel, a 68 acre piece of land which UCSB agreed would be restored, not developed into housing, in the Ellwood-Devereux Joint Proposal. Looking at the maps of the area, Dr. Stratton realized that a neighboring golf course was locked in by housing and the South Parcel, and that any future effort to restore the golf course would be too expensive after the development of the south parcel. “Given how degraded this was,” Dr. Stratton told me, “before we started spending any money, we first had to see if we could restore this wetland and take the excavated soil back on to South Parcel.”

Back in 2008, Lisa partnered with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) who were able to buy the golf course. “It was during that exact time [the 2008 recession] that we were approaching them to buy it, so conditions were prime”, says Dr. Stratton In 2013, the TPL finished gathering up all the grants, which amounted to $7 million. After a long cooperative process of meetings, grant applications, and deed restrictions, the land was set to be restored.

As it stands now, portions of the area that were part of the original estuary are now developed with housing, so she couldn’t restore the entire  space back to the original version. There were other differences this time around, too. For example, we now have an urban watershed, which means that runoff doesn’t soak into the land, and is partially delivered through storm drains into the estuary. Because extra water, whether via heavy rains or sea level rise, doesn’t have anywhere to go in the current system, Dr. Stratton’s design creates more flexibility for the system.  “We’ve created intermediate zones for the stormwater to come in and be treated before it gets to the wetlands,” Dr. Stratton said, “so we have water quality benefits downstream.”

As mentioned above, the NCOS project has lowered local flood risk by removing up to eight feet of dirt from this wetland, creating a place for stormwater to go. The county has certified that the project has lowered the flood zone in the surrounding area by two feet, thus taking all the residents living near the area out of the flood zone. The benefits of this development include saving Goleta community members money on flood insurance, limiting closures of Storke road, and avoiding seasonal flooding of nearby buildings, like the Meadow Tree and Fairview apartments.

The estuary will also serve as a haven for many endangered species, complete with nesting grounds for the western snowy plover. It will also incorporate little side channels for  tidewater gobies to ensure they are protected from being swept away when the mouth of the estuary breaches and all the water rushes out to sea. Nearby, the CCBER team is planting upwards of twenty acres of salt marsh vegetation, which sequesters carbon while serving as habitat for endangered and non-endangered species alike.

CCBER has established two main goals for the project: to restore the land, and to support social values. Part of restoring the land includes maintaining a balance of a variety of ecosystems despite future sea level rise, while simultaneously providing space for passive recreation and research. To accomplish this, Dr. Stratton and her team are attempting to preserve and restore the historical flora of the area. “We collected the seeds to grow every plant we’re planting here,” Dr. Stratton adds, “so we know where all the genotypes are from.”

One day, about 18 months ago, the entire golf course was dug out and graded to withstand up to eight feet of sea level rise. This opens up space, called transgression space, which protects the balance of the varied habitats (salt marsh, mudflats, sub-tidal) within the estuary, retaining 15-25% salt marsh and mitigating the sea level rise experienced in the surrounding areas. This was integral in the design of the whole project, which has ensured  room for all three kinds of estuarine habitats. It’s not fully tidal, it’s an intermittently tidal estuary, but these gentle slopes also support accretion, the slow buildup of sediment and organic matter, allowing the salt marsh to build up a bit with each tide. All this grading also expands the tidal prism—a technical term referring to the amount of water that can flow in and out of the estuary with each change of tide. The increased size of the wetland, since restoration significantly increases the tidal prism of the estuary, and with sea level rise the system is modeled to transform from an intermittently open estuary to a fully tidal estuary.

This is great news for adjacent homeowners, whose backyards and doorsteps will be 3 feet less flooded by sea level rise.  At the opening of the estuary, a beach berm partially blocks the in-and-out flow of the tides. Without the project, the berm would build up, leading to higher water levels, and, you guessed it, more flooding. However, the expanded tidal prism allows a higher volume of water to rush in and out regularly, so the berm would be constantly in flux until it becomes fully tidal.

In addition to removing and recontouring tons of dirt within the North Campus Open Space, the team buried 200 tons of a pyrolyzed wood carbon equivalent, called biochar, about twelve inches beneath the surface of the restored mesa. The carbon crystals in the biochar don’t decompose, so they serve as nuclei for biotic activity within the dense, salty, nutrient poor clay soils excavated from the estuary and used to create the mesa. In addition to directly storing 200 tons of carbon, it creates an opportunity for biotic activity that’s beneficial for plants, urging them to put better roots down, which sequesters even more carbon. This carbon-storing cycle will continue indefinitely beneath the perennial grassland that will soon cover these slopes.

There is one more added benefit: groundwater recharge. “Before, freshwater wouldn’t have had a place to stay,” Dr. Stratton explains. But with the grading and expansion of wetland, “now we’ve doubled the capacity of the system.” Allowing for rain and runoff to filter through the estuary before pouring into the sea keeps the water on land for longer. This allows more time for plants and dirt to absorb it, instead of, as Dr. Stratton puts it, “dumping all of our fresh rainwater straight into the ocean, the way storm drains do.”

As a continuation of their success in K-12 Kids in Nature programs, CCBER kicked off the ‘safe route to school project’ on October 10th, 2018. This initiative opens access to paths running through the space for the children in the community who would otherwise be biking to school on a road busy with cars. This is all part of a broader trend for CCBER, according to Dr. Stratton, in which the organization has been branching out into the community:  “CCBER has been pretty much focused on main campus and UC Santa Barbara students,” she says, “but this project is really out there in terms of being in the community.”

She’s smiling widely now, almost glowing with the satisfaction this project seems to have brought her. In her office jam-packed with rolled-up maps and stacks of papers, Dr. Stratton shares her hopes for the project, which envision the campus and community hand-in-hand. She and her team, not to mention the countless campus organizations pitching in, have contributed to what she calls “a whole new thing for campus”, and one which has expanded CCBER’s orientation to be more inclusive of the public. Her confidence in these statements come from the excitement she’s sensed in the UCSB and local community: “It’s been rewarding to see how people appreciate it,” but that wasn’t her motivation all along. “You get pretty focused on the amazing opportunity to bring back something that was so degraded.”