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Rewilding Santa Monica's Thoroughly Artificial Beach

A runner passes a restored patch of the beach in Santa Monica. | Photo: Jason Goldman
A runner passes a restored patch of the beach in Santa Monica. | Photo: Jason Goldman

In the early 1900s, L.A. County beaches were not yet the tourist destination they would one day become. The pier in Santa Monica was completed in 1909, but it wasn't for another few decades that the beach itself would itself become a destination. "At that time, Miami was the place to be, and this beach did not look like Miami," says ecologist Tom Ford, Executive Director of the Santa Monica-based research and restoration nonprofit The Bay Foundation.

To draw more tourists to the area, local municipalities wanted the beaches of the Santa Monica Bay to mimic those on the nation's opposite coast: bigger, flatter, wider. Beach managers of the time decided to bend the area's geology to their will, making Southern California beaches take on a more Floridian aesthetic.

A century later, Ford and his colleagues are working to fix those managers’ work.

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Walking along the beach north of the pier, behind the Annenberg Community Beach House, Ford explains that Santa Monica's three mile long beach – along with those of Venice, Dockweiler, Will Rogers, Zuma, Redondo, Torrance, and so on – is largely an artificial, man-made construct. It was built by moving sand from one place and dumping it into another.

In 1947, for example, nearly 14 million cubic yards of sand were removed to make way for El Segundo's Hyperion power plant. They were deposited onto Santa Monica's beaches. Another million cubic yards came a couple years later, the sand this time recovered from dredging operations along a nearby breakwater. In all, some thirty million cubic yards of sand have been dumped onto the beaches of Santa Monica and Venice. That's almost as much, by volume, as all the concrete used to build the Three Gorges Dam in China.

All that tourist-friendly sand has turned the beach into an ecological wasteland, Ford says. Nothing grows here. In part, that's because the Department of Beaches and Harbors grooms it so often: every other day during the winter, and more frequently during the high season.

Alarmed by the threat of rising sea levels thanks to climate change, Santa Monica, like other coastal towns across the world, is trying to be proactive; to put processes in place now that could protect them from rising waters in the future. That's where The Bay Foundation comes in.

Sea rocket and other beach sand seedlings | Photo: Jason Goldman
Sea rocket and other beach sand seedlings | Photo: Jason Goldman

At Ford's urging, Santa Monica agreed to stop grooming a two-acre stretch of beach last December. Then, Bay Foundation ecologists like watershed programs manager Melodie Grubbs sprinkled around 40,000 seeds on it from four native California coastal dune species. Aided by a particularly wet winter, Grubbs estimates that at least a quarter of those seeds have since sprouted.

"The purpose of the vegetation is to trap sand and, over the course of the next few years, create small dunes, about knee-high," she says. Over time, those dunes should grow larger and larger. Eventually, they'll help protect coastal infrastructure from sea level rise. At least, that's the idea.

"We were very receptive to doing this pilot project," says Judith Meister, Santa Monica's Beach Administrator. "It is a great opportunity to try [this approach], in a small section of the beach," she says.

Looking southward across the restoration area | Photo; Jason Goldman
Looking southward across the revegetation area | Photo; Jason Goldman

The alternative would be to construct a series of rock walls to keep the sea away. Not only is dune creation more visually appealing than sea walls, it's also far cheaper. "And when you install hard rock structures, you tend to lose the beach," says Grubbs. Which sort of defeats the purpose.

"So far we've gotten very good responses; the neighbors were all very supportive," says Meister.

Ford thinks that the positive reaction to the project can be explained by the inclusion, from the beginning, of all the various stakeholders. "We sat down with the guys that maintain the beach, the lifeguards, the cops who patrol the beach," he says. "It wasn't just us sitting around getting our nerd on talking about plants."

Tom Ford and Melodie Grubbs at the restoration site | Photo: Jason Goldman
The Bay Foundation's Tom Ford and Melodie Grubbs at the project site | Photo: Jason Goldman

If you approach the experimental site today, you'll find a small fence surrounding the area with some temporary signs explaining just what The Bay Foundation is doing. There's a walkway through the center that allows easy access to the water's edge for joggers, surfers, sunbathers, and so on.

Within the fenced area, small yellow flowers called beach evening primrose are blooming. Some plants, like the sea rocket, have taken root even though weren't intentionally planted. It's hard to tell, but all these plants are already doing their job changing the contours of the beach. Small proto-dunes are taking shape. The sand itself is become more diverse. Grains show different colors, and have different sizes. Local birds have shown up.

In February, researchers were excited to see federally Threatened western snowy plovers hanging out in the nascent dunes. In April ecologist Dan Cooper, who was contracted by the Bay Foundation to conduct wildlife monitoring, confirmed that one of them had constructed a nest. It's the first time a western snowy plover has nested on an L.A. County beach in seventy years.

"I call it shocking," he says. "This is not a bird that's easy to restore. I think it's just stunning."

Signage at Santa Monica Beach | Photo: Jason Goldman
Signage at Santa Monica Beach | Photo: Jason Goldman

Unfortunately, recent high winds meant trouble for the imperiled birds. Their eggs were buried in sand, making the nest a failure. But Bay Foundation scientists are hopeful that the plovers may create another nest, since the birds have decided to stick around, at least for now.

While The Bay Foundation, together with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is urging beachgoers to keep their distance from the sensitive birds, the long-term vision is for humans and wildlife to coexist here. The goal is sustainable use, not the creation of a wildlife refuge.

The unfortunate snowy plover eggs | Photo: Chris Dellith/ USFWS
The unfortunate snowy plover eggs | Photo: Chris Dellith/ USFWS

Meister hopes that as plants become established and the ecosystem becomes self-sustaining, people will one day be able to sit on the dunes themselves. "That could be a really different and pleasant experience on the beach."

While those who grew up in LA might find it an unfamiliar experience, those who have spent time on East Coast beaches will find it familiar. "You park, you climb up the stairs, you walk over the boardwalk, then you get down to the beach with the dunes behind you," says Ford.

Two acres won't protect the city from rising waters. The current exclosure is just large enough to allow Bay Foundation researchers and their partners to test their scientific hypotheses as a proof of concept.

While some of the most heavily used parts of the beach such as those immediately north and south of the pier will probably never remain un-groomed, it isn't crazy to imagine a series of a dozen or more small sections of beach, like this one, that are allowed to return to a more natural state.

To call it environmental restoration would ignore the fact that these beaches never looked like this in the first place, but creating the conditions for nature to once again retain control just might give us the protection we need from higher, stronger, angrier waves while also creating an environment for imperiled wildlife to thrive.

"Right now, people and dogs have 100 percent of the beach, but maybe it can be 99 percent," says Cooper. "Honestly, one percent of the beach is huge."

Banner: Shorebirds work the surfline at Santa Monica Beach : Photo: Jason Goldman

For the record: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Los Angeles County's Department of Beaches and Harbors had been responsible for grooming the revegetation area. That task had actually been the responsibility of the City of Santa Monica. We regret the error.