A view of West Cliff Drive.
A view of West Cliff Drive.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

A one-way West Cliff Drive? Remove iceplant? Inside the plan to fix Santa Cruz’s iconic, eroding street

A plan to adapt 3-mile-long West Cliff Drive to prevent erosion and other environmental challenges won city council approval Tuesday. It lays out a litany of projects — totaling some $20 million — to be done by 2036 to keep the street safe, and also details potential work beyond that.

West Cliff Drive, the iconic coastal stretch in Santa Cruz, is feeling the effects of climate change — and those impacts are only expected to worsen in coming decades. In response, the city council on Tuesday approved an environmental “adaptation plan” for the street.

The plan is the city’s second try at preparing the 3-mile-long scenic corridor for the climate of the future, and outlines preventative measures for preparing for “the inevitable future of accelerated coastal erosion and increasing vulnerabilities to the Santa Cruz community.”

The proposals in the document include repairing or replacing plumbing that contributes to erosion; traffic flow and signage changes; removing invasive iceplant; and adding “cliff armoring” and a “living shoreline” to foster native animal species and prevent further erosion.

If the city doesn’t intervene, responding to environmental emergencies along West Cliff could be “more costly, unplanned, and over time are more likely to have expanded impacts on coastal resources,” according to the plan.

Tuesday’s approval puts the city on a roadmap for addressing future needs, even if the projects are expensive and funding sources are uncertain.

“I imagine it will become quite a model for places around — not just California but around the world — on how to look at adaptation and sea level rise,” Mayor Donna Meyers said Tuesday.

To develop the plan, city staff and a 17-member “technical advisory committee” that included Meyers and Councilmember Justin Cummings studied, surveyed, focus-grouped, workshopped and brainstormed over the course of 2019 and 2020 to find the most pressing issues facing West Cliff — and what solutions could be used to fix, or at least improve, them.

The resulting list of projects — estimated to cost around $20 million by 2036 — would need to be completed in the next 10 to 15 years, but the plan also sets a vision for “the next 80 years of adaptation,” with medium- and long-term projects and goals.

A version of the “West Cliff Drive Adaptation and Management Plan: A Public Works Plan” began in the early 2000s, but “stalled due to lack of staff capacity.” In 2018, with grant funding from the California Department of Transportation, the city hired a consultant to resume the effort. Next, the plan will go to the California Coastal Commission for review.

Threat of coastal erosion

Some parts of West Cliff are more or less susceptible to erosion based on what they are made of, and that’s why the coast has slipped into the ocean unevenly. Not only does coastal erosion threaten Santa Cruz’s beaches and tourist spots, but it can also compromise the integrity of nearby residential neighborhoods and public utilities such as stormwater pipes.

From an ecological standpoint, erosion and sea level rise can result in the loss of important animal habitats, such as those that exist along West Cliff Drive now. A panoply of seabirds, fish, marine mammals, insects and other creatures depend on the coast, including its rocky crevices and peaceful tide pools.

At present, almost half of the oceanside of West Cliff is guarded from storm surge, rising tides and strong waves by seawalls and stacks of rocks called “rip-rap.” But those 53 armoring sites “may not be sufficient” to handle future sea level rise, the plan says.

Consider Natural Bridges State Beach. By 2030, coastal flooding during major storms is expected to completely inundate the beach. Rising tides could put 10% of the beach underwater by 2030, too. And by 2100, the beach could be 30% to 50% more narrow, according to the report accompanying the plan.

Many of West Cliff’s “pocket beaches,” such as Its Beach and Mitchell’s Cove, are already narrow because they are backed by rip-rap. As sea level rises, “it is likely that these narrow beaches will gradually be lost,” according to the plan.

Sand levels (and accessibility) at Its Beach already fluctuate when major storm waves arrive in the winter. An extreme example of that volatility happened in the late 1990s, when an El Ni˜ño condition wiped away the 150-foot-wide beach completely in a few months, dropping it down by 8 feet.

In another sign of what’s to come, Pyramid Beach at Auburn Avenue is eroded away during winter storms and only in the summer does sand build back up enough to create a small beach, the report says. The city could choose to fill in the sand using material dredged from the harbor or from the San Lorenzo River, and that option is included in the plan.

west cliff drive erosion
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

High-hazard zones, impact of sea caves

Many segments of West Cliff Drive have old buffers used to prevent cliff erosion that themselves weak, or new areas that are liable to harshly erode — some more urgently than others, the plan points out.

  • In the stretch from Natural Bridges Overlook to Almar Avenue, there are two high-risk areas of erosion concern: a failure at the recreational trail near Auburn Avenue and another at the end of Merced Avenue. In the next decade, eight armoring structures in this zone are expected to fail, and 12 problem areas are “potentially high hazard and likely to erode.”
  • In zone 2, which runs from Almar Avenue to Lighthouse Field State Beach, 11 of 27 preventive armoring structures are likely to fail and they could impact the West Cliff Drive trail or the road itself, according to the report.

“The most severe is the sea cave near David Way which undermines the Recreational Trail and both lanes of traffic on West Cliff Drive,” the plan says.

  • Between Lighthouse State Beach and Pelton Avenue at the Surfer Memorial, 10 coastal areas are concerning to the plan’s developers and three parts are considered to be at high risk for erosion, including a large sea cave at Lighthouse Point and other undercuts beneath the walking and biking trail. However none of the armoring structures in this stretch are expected to fail in the next decade.
  • Lastly, in the high-traffic zone from Pelton Avenue to Bay Avenue there are three high-risk erosion areas, all linked to sea caves, including one that is “likely to fail in the short term.”
west cliff drive historical
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

Drainage and iceplant

Some aging public wastewater and storm drain pipes that run under West Cliff Drive are also contributing to erosion of the cliffs, the panel found. Replacing or redesigning the pipes is on the plan’s to-do list.

Iceplant, the ubiquitous and highly invasive species that has spread its tentacles all over the cliffs of West Cliff Drive, is another contributor to Santa Cruz’s coastal predicament. Iceplant was brought to the United States from South Africa around 1900, and used to “stabilize sand” along highways and railroads, according to the management plan. But its domain has suppressed other native plants, changed the soil chemistry and — when laden with water after a heavy storm — ripped out chunks of cliffs and bluffs.

The plan includes continuing the work that is already being done to restore native plants and animals on the coast and in local watersheds, and that includes careful removal of iceplant.

Traffic and transportation changes

The panel also recommended two options for improving transportation along the road. The first, a short-term plan, includes:

  • More signage, marked crosswalks and other improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists.
  • Creating more curb cuts to increase access to the main walking/biking trail.
  • Possible restrictions on parking, including time limits, permit requirements and fees.

Another alternative is to convert West Cliff Drive into a one-way street in the longer term (beyond 15 years) “based upon erosion and sea level rise triggers that would prohibit the status quo from continuing.” City staff are working with UCSC and other groups to identify those triggers, but say a switch to one-way traffic would involve a multi-year community input process down the road.

However, portions of West Cliff Drive are already becoming dangerously narrow due to erosion, according to the report.

Instead of two lanes of vehicular traffic, the eastbound lane would be turned into a two-way bicycle track separate from the walking path along the bay.

How to fund climate change preparation

The city will likely need to pursue a multiple funding options to bankroll the $20 million worth of projects, including grants funded by state and federal programs, as well as local funding.

Santa Cruz also could borrow money or look to raise property taxes in all or part of the city, but it could also generate money in other ways, including an increase in Transient Occupancy Taxes on hotels, the creation of a financing district or fees for West Cliff Drive visitors. All of those options are on the table, but will be decided down the road.

Go Deeper
  • General
    Explore the West Cliff Drive adaptation plan
    The detailed report, a culmination of years’ worth of work by various groups, assesses the current erosion level of West Cliff Drive, what sea level rise impacts are expected, and how the city can protect its scenic corridor in the next decade.