Sitting in a depression between high rocky cliffs near the shore, the Capitola Village is home to trendy shops, bars and restaurants, all of which have helped make the town of Capitola a popular, laid-back getaway since 1869. Over the years, the city has seen many changes—and more dramatic ones could be on the way.
Patrick Barnard, who’s lived in the Capitola Village for more than 15 years, works as a coastal geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Pacific Coastal Science Center. As research director for the federal agency’s climate impacts and coastal processes team, Barnard focuses on climate-related changes to the beaches and estuaries bordering the Pacific Ocean.
Increasing global temperatures have begun melting polar ice caps, a trend that’s raising sea levels. It will all mean trouble, he says, for the town that he calls home.
“Sea-level rise is going to pose a major problem for communities up and down the coast—especially low-lying communities like Capitola,” Barnard says. “The village is built right at sea level in the flood plain of a river. Between the ocean and the creek, it’s in an extremely vulnerable position.”
To put it bluntly, there’s a chance that a portion of “Capitola by the Sea,” as it’s sometimes known, could become “Capitola in the Sea.” The city of Santa Cruz’s Climate Adaptation Plan, published in 2018, estimates climate change, caused by greenhouse gas emissions, will result in about 28 inches of sea-level rise along the Central Coast by 2060.
According to a U.N. report on climate change released last year, the world will face disastrous climate change if humans fail to to cut emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels in the next 10 years.
In Capitola’s own Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2015, leaders primarily address methods of reducing carbon emissions—encouraging bus ridership, bicycle use and electric vehicles—more than studying ways to mitigate climate change’s impacts. The report does, however, say that the city could be hit hard by “the effects of sea-level rise, changes in precipitation patterns, extreme weather events, and other inclement effects of climate change.” Such possibilities may not sound totally unfamiliar to many residents. In March of 2011, a heavy rain downpour caused a Capitola drainage pipe to burst, sending a wave of water through the village.
Barnard expects flooding and severe storms to occur more regularly, and when combined with sea-level rise, they could wreak havoc on village life.
“If you’re looking out to 2050, with a foot or more of sea-level rise, it’s clearly a serious problem,” says Barnard. “Waves are crashing through Zelda’s and Margaritaville already. Add a foot of water and these things will start happening every year, and multiple times a year.”
Capitola Mayor Jacques Bertrand says that every winter, the town puts up sandbags to serve as a barricade. There are some in place right now. One day, they won’t be enough.
“Sandbags will soon be ineffective. You can’t build high enough,” he says. “You can’t hold the water back at some point.”
WATER LEVEL UP
Even the 4 inches of sea level rise expected on the Central Coast by 2030, according to Santa Cruz’s plan, could have serious, long-lasting effects on sea-level communities like Capitola, a town of 10,000 residents spread over an area of just 1.7 square miles. Some business owners are already on edge.
Brook Penquite, 49, opened his family-run Santa Cruz Poke shop a little over a year ago in the Capitola Mercantile. Penquite, who has gray hair and a speckled brown goatee, wipes sauce from his thick apron and solemnly tells GT that “things are already changing in the village.”
“It’s beyond worrisome,” he says. “Sea-level rise is going to have a huge impact on the homes and businesses down here. I want to see us survive down here. But we are going to need to make changes.”
Penquite says he’s already seen overloaded storm drains spew sewage into the streets and water breach the sea wall during storms. “No one knows what it’s going to be like in the future,” Penquite says. “But the truth is we’ve seen flooding way more frequently. We need to approach climate change mitigation with a real cause and a real purpose.”
Nearby at Pizza My Heart, Ruby Aron, 17, darts back and forth between a large oven and the front counter, taking orders and talking to hungry customers.
A native Capitolan, Aron sees the village and nearby beach where she spent her childhood summers as “safe, family-friendly, charming, and perfect.” She and other Pizza My Heart employees are “worried sick” about climate change, sea-level rise, and the prospect that their flagship pizzeria could soon be underwater,” she says.
“The sandbar is changing,” says Aron. “The beach is shrinking. Behind our building, there’s an entire stream connecting the beach and the creek that never existed before. If things continue, a lot of people’s memories are going to be washed away. We need to do everything we can to save the village.”
Portions of the Capitola Village, which wraps around Soquel Creek, take clear inspiration from Venice, Italy, whose complex gridlike canals weave around city blocks.
Perhaps the most obvious remnants of that 100-year-old local aspiration lie in the Mediterranean-style Venetian Court bungalows on the north side of Soquel Creek. In the real Venice, located on Italy’s northeastern shore, repeated flooding has already begun taking a significant toll. For more than 15 years, construction crews have been building gates at the mouth of the city’s lagoon to literally hold high tides at bay.
In Capitola, Public Works Director Steve Jesberg’s three-man department is responsible for all maintenance and construction projects for parks, roads and public facilities in Capitola. “We’re a small city,” he says. “There’s no one person whose job it is to look at and plan for sea-level rise and the effects of climate change.”
Capitola, he explains, is working to ensure that all existing infrastructure is as good as it can be. “Sea-level rise is a real thing, and something we need to address soon,” he says.
The Capitola jetty was built in the late 1960s to keep Capitola Beach as wide as possible. A wider beach means more protection for the village, allowing waves to break on the edge of the beach, further away from buildings. Barnard says that without a jetty, Capitola wouldn’t even have a beach. Sand would be ripped off the beach and sent down the coast.
Even with an intact jetty in place, Jesberg warns that waves will still crash over Capitola’s sea wall and into buildings in the village. He’s extremely worried about winter storm surges. With sea level rise, he says, “There is potential for water to go over our modest sea wall and enter the village and road every day. If this happens, we’d have to rebuild the entire village—with higher roads and such.”
Rebuilding would be a tall order for Jesberg and his team, but the public works director says that he and his department are “not panicking yet.”
Barnard, though, stresses that the threats are real. “Just a few inches of seal level rise can cause 100-year events to occur every five years,” he says. “Adapting to sea-level rise and the expected impacts of climate change is going to be very expensive. I truly wonder if Capitola has the resources it’s going to take.”
Mayor Bertrand says Capitola is working to improve its drainage system and planning and trying to better understand the “scope of the issues.” The city might have to raise the village in order to protect it, he says, adding that abandoning the neighborhood wouldn’t be an option. He doesn’t know how Capitola’s going to pay for it.
“How much money is it going to take to save the village? Raising all the buildings and moving them inward—that’s a huge project,” says Bertrand, a former city treasurer. “Capitola Village is going to have to change due to the threat of climate change and sea-level rise.”
Businesses may have to adjust as well. Jesberg says that the economic impacts from global warming will be big. “A lot of business will be affected,” he says. “It will definitely affect tourism and the health of Capitola Village.”
Even with the jetty improvement approved, one of the biggest challenges Capitola faces is the beach itself, which Barnard says may not exist in a few decades. With sea level rise, beaches tend to migrate and shrink inward.
Barnard says that right now, waves primarily come from the west and northwest. That leaves southwest-facing Capitola more or less buffered from big swells. He says that climate models project that more waves will start coming from the south, which would mean trouble.
“The village will see a direct impact,” Barnard says. “A direct hit.”