With sea levels rising ever-increasingly, the Goleta Slough Management Committee has recently taken steps to see what the rising waters could mean for the slough, its habitats, and the entities in its wake — including the Santa Barbara Airport, UCSB, two sanitary districts, Goleta Beach, and underground gas storage and pipelines, plus many businesses and widely traveled roads and bridges — and how the area can prepare for its likely water-inundated future. Since the 1990s, sea-level rise has clocked in at about three millimeters, or one-tenth of an inch, per year but is projected to reach 15 millimeters per year by 2100, said Dave Revell, a geomorphologist who helped conduct the assessment for the committee. “Sea-level rise is a long-term issue that we need to deal with,” he said. “In the future, it may require a complete rethink of how we manage Goleta Slough and all of the infrastructure that is in there.”
Experts said that they worry rising waters could flood the airport — the runways, Revell said, are about nine feet above sea level and high tide hits the seven-foot mark — and the streets and that, although hard to imagine in the midst of a severe drought, strong rainstorms, coupled with rising waters, could turn the slough into a bathtub and prevent the storm drains from draining. Wildlife would also be affected, said Rachel Couch of the Coastal Conservancy, which helped fund the assessment. While she said it was unclear exactly how steelhead trout would fare, Belding’s savannah sparrows would suffer, but shore birds would benefit from the water’s ability to turn the mid-marsh into mud flats. Geese and ducks could arrive in greater numbers, posing safety risks for the airport.
Thousands of years from now could see the need for everything in the slough’s vicinity to relocate, Revell said. In the nearer future, though, adaptation measures like resurfacing roads and airport runways slightly higher and allowing sediment into the slough — long prevented — commensurate with the rising waters could help, said Committee facilitator Pat Saley, who added that the group will be incorporating the assessment into its slough management plan and figuring out a way for all of the jurisdictions involved to discuss strategies. “This initial study is so important to getting the discussion going,” she said. “We’re trying to be proactive, not reactive.”