Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara County’s beautiful beaches, pristine coastline, and proximity to scenic trails and wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest makes the region beloved by residents and a must-see destination for tourists. In order to preserve these natural resources that help to define the Santa Barbara region, the County needs to plan for the impacts associated with sea level rise and to adapt for climate change.

Family at Jamala Beach, Santa Barbara County. Photo credit: © Richard Herrmann

Family at Jamala Beach, Santa Barbara County. Photo credit: © Richard Herrmann

The future resilience of Santa Barbara’s coastal communities depends on analysis and careful planning today. Residents and local decision-makers are aware that they need to prepare for rising sea levels and associated coastal storms, but currently they do not have the tools, information, or funding to do so. By expanding the information and models created by the Coastal Resilience Ventura Program, the County of Santa Barbara, in partnership with cities and other stakeholders, have modeled and mapped future coastal hazards due to sea level rise, assess vulnerabilities, and begin to identify resilient measures and adaptation strategies that can be taken to prepare Santa Barbara County for the impacts of sea level rise.

By filling information gaps, creating maps of projected coastal hazards, and sharing the new information, the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Barbara Coastal Resiliency Program will enable staff, decision-makers, and residents to develop scientifically sound and robust adaptation strategies and management options for the future.


The Santa Barbara region maintains a delicate economic balance between residents and tourists, new growth and historic character. As a result of its coastal setting, the County must contend with increased coastal hazards associated with a changing climate.

In February 1983, strong storms caused damage near the Biltmore oceanfront. Photo Credit: Santa Barbara County

In February 1983, strong storms caused damage near the Biltmore oceanfront. Photo Credit: Santa Barbara County

These anticipated hazards include:

  • Increased coastal erosion from sea level rise and storm impacts
  • More severe and frequent coastal flooding
  • Increasing frequency of tidal inundation
  • Increased impacts from waves.

In addition to the sea level rise impacts predicted along coastal zones throughout the world, Santa Barbara County’s north and south coastlines experience different exposure from wave conditions. Along the south coast, the shoreline is affected by waves coming around Point Conception and through the Channel Islands, whereas in the north county the many reefs, beaches, and cliffs north of Point Conception are exposed to more direct wave energy.

Socioeconomic Resources

Human Populations Santa Barbara’s residents differ in terms of how vulnerable they are to the impacts of sea level rise and other coastal hazards. Populations that are most vulnerable to the effects of coastal hazards include households with members over the age of 65 and/or under the age of 18, renters, households with income below poverty level, and households where English is not the primary language. Already facing difficult circumstances, these groups often struggle to adapt to new conditions. The County’s challenge is to first, determine where residents most vulnerable to coastal hazards live and then project when and how they may be affected by future sea level rise impacts to identify potential solutions to strengthen these communities. In addition to location, how sensitive these residents are to sea level rise may vary with specific conditions, such as the amount of local sea level rise, intensity, frequency, and duration of storm events, and extent of coastal bluff erosion.

Economic The project will identify areas of economic vulnerabilities and importance, including agriculture, recreational and tourist facilities, housing, and critical infrastructure. Thousands of tourists visit Santa Barbara County each year. Attracted to the sandy beaches, historic charm, and beauty, the tourism industry is an important asset to Santa Barbara County. Sea level rise could harm the economy by affecting businesses, jobs, tourism etc. Severe damage to the coast due to increased storms, erosion and/or loss of recreational beaches and housing would have serious economic repercussions for Santa Barbara.

Groundwater The South Coast of Santa Barbara County has five groundwater basins between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The groundwater basins include Goleta, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Montecito, and Foothill, and underlie approximately 50 squares miles. Seawater intrusion of the groundwater basins is currently not a significant issue on the south coast. Of the five highlighted basins, only the Santa Barbara basin has experienced some historic seawater intrusion, and this trend has largely been reversed due to the City of Santa Barbara implementing a groundwater injection program. Overall, groundwater quality is adequate throughout the region, although some wells in this region show elevated levels of total dissolved solids and other constituents.

Habitats and Species

Riparian habitat along the Carpinteria Creek is an important area for several endangered species. Source: City of Carpinteria

Riparian habitat along the Carpinteria Creek is an important area for several endangered species. Source: City of Carpinteria

Abundant with flora and fauna, Santa Barbara is a biological hotspot because of the many unique ecosystems created as the coast transitions into the Santa Ynez Mountains and at the oceanic mixing zone between the California Current and the Southern California Bight. Therefore, it is important to consider climate change impacts to critical habitats and endangered species in order to maintain them under future conditions. Warming temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in precipitation patterns may shift and put many critical habitats and endangered species at risk. In addition to physical hazards, as beaches narrow, recreation and certain habitat areas such as coastal dunes and strands will be reduced and encounters between people and endangered species will increase. As part of the program, partner agencies will determine areas vulnerable to sea level rise that also serve as critical habitat for endangered species.

Habitats The County is home to many rare and endangered habitat types including: • Coastal sage chapparal scrub • Central maritime chapparal • Coastal wetlands including estuarine, riverine, and riparian • Riparian woodlands • Coastal dunes and strand • Marine mammal haul-outs • Monarch butterfly habitat • Raptor nesting and breeding areas • Marine ecosystems such as kelp beds, sea grasses, and rocky intertidal zones.

Species These habitats also provide homes for many special-status species, species of special concern, and other locally sensitive species.

These species include:

Belding’s Savannah Sparrow The Belding’s Savannah Sparrow makes its home in marshes along the Santa Barbara County coastline and is currently listed as an endangered species under state protection. Since it lives and breeds completely in the marsh habitat, this species is especially vulnerable to increased inundation of its coastal marsh habitat by seawater, especially if the habitat is constrained on the inland side by development or flood defenses.

California Least Tern This endangered bird breeds and nests on flat, sandy beaches and hunts in nearby estuaries and lagoons. Loss of habitat caused the population to decline dramatically in the 1970s and led to their listing as an endangered species by both state and

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Endangered California Least Tern feeds its young. Photo credit: © Gary S. Meredith

federal authorities. Today, north county beaches serve as an important nesting ground for the birds as the population makes a slow recovery. If these sandy beaches are narrowed during the summer breeding season, the small seabirds will have to look for other areas to nest and forage.

California Red-legged Frog Famous for its role in Mark Twain’s short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, today this frog is found almost exclusively in California. This federally and state-listed amphibian prefers slow-moving streams and ponds with dense vegetation cover that protect it from too much sunlight. Habitat loss or salinity changes could threaten this native frog.

California Tidewater Goby The California tidewater goby is a small fish native to California. The species prefers slightly salty or brackish lagoons created by the mixing of coastal streams and seawater. Therefore, the goby is vulnerable to changes in salinity and tidal extents, which may bring in water that is too salty for the fish to survive. With a rise in sea level, the goby may experience increases in salt water into their coastal habitats particularly in watersheds where fish passage barriers may hinder migration and further threaten this already federally endangered species.

Southern Steelhead The Southern California steelhead trout is a unique form of rainbow trout. Like a salmon, most of their adult life is spent in the ocean, with the steelhead returning to freshwater rivers and creeks to spawn. Stream diversion and coastal development have forced this species onto the Federal government’s list of endangered species in Southern California. New and future hazards in creeks, canyons, and sloughs put the steelhead in further danger with changes in stream flow, estuarine habitats and warmer water temperatures.

Western Snowy Plover The western snowy plover is a shorebird that makes its home on the exposed beaches of Santa Barbara where it nests and forages in the kelp-strewn sand. Their habitat preferences make the plover especially vulnerable to predation and human disturbance. Currently, the coastal population of the snowy plover is listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act and its sand dune habitat is vulnerable to flooding and inundation as sea levels change. If beaches narrow as a result of increased coastal armoring, much of this species habitat could be lost.

Shorebirds at Leadbetter Beach, an important part of the coastal ecosystem. Source: Rosie Dyste, City of Santa Barbara

Shorebirds at Leadbetter Beach, an important part of the coastal ecosystem. Source: Rosie Dyste, City of Santa Barbara

Other special status species that may be threatened by climate change include:

  • Southwestern willow flycatcher
  • White-tailed kite • Monarch butterfly
  • Coast range newt
  • Pacific pond turtle
  • Silvery legless lizard
  • California brown pelican
  • Globose dune beetle


The Nature Conservancy’s Santa Barbara Coastal Resilience Program has three phases. The first phase includes modeling coastal process scenarios and mapping future coastal hazard zones. The second phase involves conducting a vulnerability assessment to identify sensitive areas and resources and to engage stakeholders. The third phase will involve identification of the range of potential adaptation measures and a close examination of the tradeoffs and interactions with the various measures to identify a comprehensive adaptation plan to reduce vulnerabilities for future coastal conditions.

Shorebirds at Leadbetter Beach, an important part of the coastal ecosystem. Source: Rosie Dyste, City of Santa Barbara

Shorebirds at Leadbetter Beach, an important part of the coastal ecosystem. Source: Rosie Dyste, City of Santa Barbara

Modeling Future Scenarios The first step is modeling the physical processes and projecting changes based on the best available science on sea level rise and have included at least three sea level rise scenarios (low, medium, high) and three planning timescales (2030, 2060, 2100). These scenarios and timescales follow the latest Coastal Commission guidance on sea level rise as well as a similar range as those used in the Coastal Resilience Ventura Project.

The modeling will generate hazard zones, which will include:

  • Short-term, storm-induced erosion
  • Long-term or multi-year erosion
  • Coastal flooding from storms
  • Coastal inundation
  • Wave impact zone.

In addition, the program utilizes a detailed modeling approach to integrate all of the coastal hazards and project the interrelated impacts that may affect critical infrastructure, such as roads, wastewater treatment plants, and hospitals.

Mapping Hazard zones projected from the models will be used to illustrate potential future conditions associated with the projections. The maps will allow planners, decision makers, residents and other stakeholders to analyze demographic, economic, and coastal resource conditions and their relative vulnerability to coastal hazards. Additional fluvial modeling was conducted to examine changes in precipitation and sea level rise and the resulting effects on flood extents.

Habitat Available habitat data will be collected and displayed along with different sea level rise scenarios. These maps will illustrate the coastal habitat’s relative vulnerability to coastal hazards and also show the coastal habitat’s location and relation in protecting human communities. For example, beaches and dunes may protect homes and infrastructure from storm surge and flooding by dissipating wave energy.

Socio-Demographic Census block demographic data will be combined with economic data, such as utility infrastructure and building replacement costs or cost to business interruptions, to identify the potential economic damage of future sea level rise and floods. Adequate information on the risks of coastal hazards and the community’s vulnerability to them will enable decision-makers to identify and protect the County’s most at-risk populations.

Storm water overwhelms flood control systems near Montecito (1969). Photo credit: County of Santa Barbara.

Storm water overwhelms flood control systems near Montecito (1969). Photo credit: County of Santa Barbara.

Vulnerability Assessment Once hazard zones have been modeled and mapped, stakeholders will come together to assess areas and sectors of vulnerability and plan for future conditions. This vulnerability assessment will enable staff to analyze impacts to the County’s coastal zone under different climate scenarios. Critical habitat, endangered species, at-risk populations, and important resources and infrastructure will be identified.

Community Engagement A crucial piece of the Coastal Resilience Program is community engagement. The community’s input is critical to identify important resources and recommend policies and adaptation strategies that could have positive impacts for the community and the environment. Throughout this project, a stakeholder group has been assembled to provide input and review on scenario selection and modeling results and to interpret the vulnerabilities.

Adapting for the Future Following the identification of coastal hazard zones and specific areas of vulnerability, decision makers will have some of the necessary information to commence adaptation planning for future conditions. Potential policies and regulations that may be considered are: restricting development in high risk areas; identifying areas appropriate for managed retreat; protection, restoration, and enhancement of coastal resources; sand dredging and placement, and maintaining public access to beaches and the coastline including coastal trails.

A cost-benefit analysis will be used to evaluate the ability of adaptation strategies to protect coastal resources, balance recreation and habitats with upland property protection, protect the community’s most vulnerable populations, and achieve multiple benefits. A quantitative evaluation of the costs and benefits of potential adaptation strategies will be part of a future work effort that will include additional stakeholder meetings and public workshops.

An additional aspect of the program will be the development of a Policy and Planning Tool Database that will catalogue existing, proposed, and innovative coastal hazard planning policies and planning tools utilized around the state. Planners, decision makers, and stakeholders will rank policies and tools within the Database. The database will aid in making informed decisions and taking actions to reduce risks to climate hazards and enable climate-resilient development.

Natural Infrastructure

View of “Thousand Steps” coastal access stairs located west of Shoreline Park along Santa Barbara’s Mesa neighborhood during a high “King Tide” event. Source: Rosie Dyste, City of Santa Barbara.

View of “Thousand Steps” coastal access stairs located west of Shoreline Park along Santa Barbara’s Mesa neighborhood during a high “King Tide” event. Source: Rosie Dyste, City of Santa Barbara.

Mapping will identify habitat features that are critical for naturally reducing erosion (i.e., natural infrastructure, beaches, wetlands). For example, maps will identify where coastal marshes can be used and protected to reduce risk to people and property. This will allow decision-makers to examine different conservation and restoration scenarios that may reduce impacts.

In addition to natural infrastructure, the Coastal Resilience Santa Barbara Program will visually inspect current coastal armoring in Santa Barbara County that, for the most part, protects bluffs, infrastructure, and structures from flooding and erosion. By 2060, the current shoreline protection structures may be degraded if not adequately maintained. Higher sea levels and narrower beaches will likely increase the stress on coastal structures, indicating that renovation or even reconstruction may be needed to accommodate increased loadings. Therefore, an assessment of existing armoring relative to future conditions will be conducted.


For the latest reports, publications, and other resources on coastal resilience around Santa Barbara visit the Coastal Resilience Resource Library on the Conservation Gateway.