There might not be a better place than the nearby bluffs to watch the sun set on Isla Vista. Whether on the beach, at one of seven bluff-side parks or the dozens of backyard balconies that span Del Playa Drive, they treat residents and their guests to unobstructed views of the ocean and Channel Islands.
But chunks of Isla Vista’s iconic cliffs fall into the Pacific Ocean with every rising tide and seasonal storm, threatening the unique character of the community. While property owners and county officials have grappled with bluff retreat for decades, the 84 cliffside residences — mainly two-story apartment complexes and single-family homes that house hundreds of students — that now line Del Playa face an uncertain future.
Isla Vista has lost thousands of feet from its bluffs over the last 20 years
Image: The Bottom Line
A Santa Barbara County report on bluff erosion found that Isla Vista’s cliffs lose an average of six to fourteen inches of ground per year, depending on the location and geological composition of the cliff. While some homes have lost as little as one foot of cliff, other locations have lost substantially more.
On January 22, 2017, after several days of heavy rain, a ten-foot stretch of bluffs between two homes on Del Playa fell into the ocean. That collapse did more than claim their balcony: 28 students were forced out of their home after County inspectors deemed the building uninhabitable in its current condition.
For decades, County staff have monitored homes with a distance of 15 feet or less between their foundation and the cliff edge. When that distance shrinks to ten feet, landlords are deemed in violation of county policy and ordered to address the issue through structural reinforcement or by “cutting back” their property and moving it toward the street. Fifteen homes or apartment units have been “cut back” since 2005, including two properties that have been moved twice.
When there are five feet or less of space between the foundation and bluff edge, the property is deemed unsafe and uninhabitable by County building inspectors. When that happened in 2017, the property owner had to demolish four units of the apartment complex.
What causes cliff erosion?
1. Non-native and invasive species contribute to the problem
Despite its use as a soil stabilizer in other climates, Iceplant — the thick, mat-like plant that clings to cliffs up and down Del Playa — actually speeds up coastal erosion.
Introduced to California in the early 1900s, Iceplant competes with native flora for light, water and space. Native grasses and shrubs that typically grow on the cliffs (and are often better suited to combat coastal erosion) struggle to take root near Iceplant, which releases salt into the soil and creates an inhospitable environment for growth.
But Iceplant has a very shallow root system that doesn’t build up the soil in the cliffs. It holds most of its water in its leaves which often swell in the rain. During intense rain events, the thick cover and added weight of its leaves increases the risk of bluff collapse or landslides.
2. Water and improper drainage make things worse
Storm runoff collected on the streets and near homes is typically diverted off the cliffs through storm pipes. During major rain events, when the drains are often inundated, managing the runoff can be a challenge.
Standing water sometimes collects at homes, in parks and on the street. Though water often evaporates or is eventually collected in the drains, sometimes it seeps through the ground and infiltrates the bedrock.
When that happens, the water travels down through the bluff until it hits a layer of rock it can no longer filter through. The moisture eventually seeps out through the bluff as it continues to collect above the layer, contributing to the cliffside erosion.