The Santa Barbara littoral cell (SBLC) is a complex coastal system with significant management challenges. The coastline ranges broadly in exposure to wave energy, fluvial inputs, hard structures, and urbanization. Geologic influence (structural control) on coastline orientation exerts an important control on local beach behavior, with anthropogenic alterations and the episodic nature of sediment supply and transport also playing important roles.
Short- and long-term temporal analyses of shoreline change, beach width, and volume change show no obvious trends in regional beach behavior. Extensive armoring along the SBLC has accreted the back beach, narrowing beach widths and in some cases increasing sediment transport. Unarmored beaches have exhibited mild erosion while maintaining similar widths. Harbor constructions have had notable impacts on downdrift beaches, but once the coastal system has equilibrated the signal becomes strongly dampened and littoral-drift gradients driven by natural shoreline orientation again become dominant. Sediment inputs from the Santa Clara River dominate sediment processes on beaches to the south.
The SBLC is dominated by episodic flood and storm-wave events. Exceptionally large accretion signals along this stretch of coastline are closely tied to major flood events when large amounts of sediment are deposited in deltas. These deltas decay over time, supplying downdrift beaches with sediment. Storm-wave impacts and gradients in alongshore transport can lead to beach rotations and migrating erosion hotspots when geological controls are weak. Annual and seasonal rates of cross-shore and alongshore transport are at least 2-3 times higher for the more west- and southwest-facing beaches south of the Ventura River as compared to the more sheltered beaches to the west/north. Gross littoral transports are good approximations of net littoral transports for beaches west/north of Ventura as transport is almost purely unidirectional. However, significant transport reversals occur intermittently in the east/south, especially adjacent to the Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors. For this reason, and due to the episodic nature of flood and storm wave events, using dredging rates from the harbors at Ventura and Channel Islands as a proxy for drift rates may be invalid.
An extensive grain-size investigation of the surface and shallow subsurface in the nearshore region of the SBLC identified only two sites for potential beach-nourishment material: offshore of Santa Barbara Harbor and Oil Piers. However, seismic-reflection lines offshore of Santa Barbara suggest shallow bedrock (< 1 m), so the volume of coarse material in this area may be limited. Sampling of the Santa Clara River delta was minimal, but this site could be promising.
Numerical modeling shows that local beach behavior is primarily influenced by local littoral-drift gradients, which are in turn controlled by natural shoreline orientation. Given the high rates of net littoral drift and the relatively insignificant cross-shore transport in the SBLC, the SBLC should be considered a sediment-limited system (as opposed to a transport-limited system). Management actions, such as any future beach nourishment, would likely have a severely limited life span without employing additional measures that adequately address local littoral-drift gradients to retain added sand.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Coastal Processes Study of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, California