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Could Tidal Flow Fix Your Airport?

• March 21, 2011 • 5:00 AM

While common sense says more water by an airport means more waterfowl for planes to hit, wetland conservationists point out that not all birds contest the skyways.

Out with the Canadian geese, in with the least sandpipers.

That’s a New Year’s resolution nearly 25 years in the making for the public airport in Santa Barbara, Calif., where big-bird-fearing pilots and small-bird-loving environmentalists are both celebrating the return of Pacific Ocean tides to the surrounding wetlands.

The once controversial idea — which required flexibility on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration and plenty of patience from everyone else involved — will improve the environment while making flying safer and, therefore, cheaper. One airport has already taken note, and others are sure to follow.

“This project is the victory lap,” said airport planner Andrew Bermond, who’s personally been working on the project for almost five straight years. “It’s proof that the FAA is all right with wetland restoration and that it’s feasible.”

Like the many coastal airports that were built atop wetlands — Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and John F. Kennedy Airport, just to name a few biggies in the United States — the tides were cut off decades ago to allow paving and prevent flooding. Farmers, and later airstrip builders, started blocking the tidal flow here before the U.S. entered World War II, but the slough definitely took a hit after Pearl Harbor when a Marine Corps took over the existing runways and created an air station. The blockage remained when the city took over the field for its municipal airport in 1946.

The idea for returning the tides to the Santa Barbara Airport first popped up in the mid-1980s with talk of managing the entire Goleta Slough as an intact ecosystem. Conservationists, bird watchers and nature enthusiasts dreamed of returning the roughly 400 acres sandwiched between the glistening blue sea and the dramatically rising Santa Ynez Mountains back into the epicenter of biodiversity the slough once was, a place where bears and foxes shared the ocean-side mudflats with great blue herons and black neck stilts as steelhead trout swam their way from the crashing waves toward the nearby foothills.

The idea of returning tidal flow wasn’t officially proposed until a decade or so later as part of an environmental mitigation plan to offset the airport’s runway expansion. That’s right around the time the FAA started crying foul, worried that more water all the time — rather than the standing pools of water that only accumulate during the region’s short wet seasons — would equate to more birds and therefore more hazards for pilots.

As it stands, the FAA reports about 20 instances of wildlife strikes per day across the country for civilian aircraft, with likely more than 100,000 individual incidents since the database was began in 1990. Besides killing the bird, so-called bird strikes can easily cause more than $100,000 worth of damage to the plane, and worse. In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of geese and went down in the Hudson River six minutes after leaving New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, only to be landed safely by a heroic pilot in what is called the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

But in Santa Barbara, the experts argued that, with tidal flow, the larger and more dangerous migratory birds like Canadian geese and mallard ducks that congregate near standing seasonal ponds and fly across the runways would be replaced by smaller shorebirds that stick closer to the ground. To the surprise of many, the FAA was willing to let the science lead the way.

“It was a major coup to get the FAA to agree to the study,” said Pat Saley, an environmental planner who’s been working with the airport on this idea since it was first put on paper in 1988. “No one gave any thought to bird strikes,” she explained of the initial idea. “We weren’t putting our heads in the sand — it just wasn’t an issue.”

In 1999, the FAA started to realize there might be a problem. “They just said, ‘No, that’s not a good idea intuitively,’” remembered Saley. “But you had a lot of people with a lot of credibility with the right degrees saying, ‘No, no, no. The types of birds that get attracted are very different.’”

So the FAA allowed and even put up some money for a study but only after a number of parameters were worked out, such as getting an accurate count on bird strikes. “The data is too shaky when you’re looking at smashed up birds to really draw any conclusions,” said Saley, also noting that reporting relies on the human element. “That’s partly why it took a while.”

They also had to agree to very strict fail-safe provisions if things did not go as predicted. “If it turned out the ones in the tidal basin were not the kinds of birds you want, the plug would be pulled on the experiment,” said Saley. “It would stop immediately.”

In 2005, the study began with two distinct wetland basins under the proverbial microscope: One of the plots was left at status quo to be the control while the other let the tides back in. Then the scientists watched for three years. “Each year, our results indicated that, at worse, there’s no change, and you might even be able to show a benefit,” said Bermond. He explained that the third year was the most beneficial — a great sign because it represented the most functioning habitat after three years of tidal influence.

FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor concurred. “Our main concern with this project initially was whether increased water would bring more birds and create a bird-strike hazard for aircraft around Santa Barbara,” he said. “Lo and behold, it turns out that not only was there not an increase in bird activity, but there were fewer bird over-flights of the airport environment. And at the same time, it looks like the slough restoration is going to reduce the threat of airport flooding. It was really a win-win-win anyway you look at it.”

But Gregor is quick to assert that the Santa Barbara Airport project does not mean that the door is immediately open for other coastal airports to do the same and explained that a similarly involved study to show increased safety would be required everywhere else. “You can’t say it was precedent-setting or that it changes policy. It’s a good project for Santa Barbara, good for the environment, good for aviation. A similar project at another coastal airport could have the exact opposite effect.”

Nonetheless, at least one airport has already contacted Bermond to ask about the project. That would be Naval Air Station Point Mugu in neighboring Ventura County, which, like many airports concerned about the safety issues and costs related to birdstrike, is open to new solutions to an old problem. Said Bermond, “It’s a cheap and natural way for reduction of birds. The alternative is we put people in danger or we go out and duck hunt.” He doesn’t know of other airports interested yet, but also explains that no one has really gotten the word out on this to date.

Saley applauds the FAA for “pretty progressive thinking” on the matter. “For many years, they have been of the mindset that birds anywhere near aircraft equals bad,” she explained. “You understand their reticence, but they were won over by the data. That’s pretty significant. It has implications for lots of airports.”

Bermond also credits the FAA and the notoriously strict California Coastal Commission — which allowed the delay in the mitigation work due to the lengthy study — for being open to letting this happen. “If everyone had kept their thumbs on their policy,” he said, “we wouldn’t have this project at all.”

Chalk it up as a win for airports, for shorebirds, for the Goleta Slough particularly, and, perhaps most promisingly, for bureaucratic flexibility.

 

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Matt Kettmann
Matt Kettmann is the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, a stringer for TIME Magazine, and writes for Smithsonian, Sunset, Wine Spectator, and other magazines. He is also a co-founder of the New Noise Santa Barbara music conference and lives a 10-minute walk from his office in downtown Santa Barbara with his wife and young son.

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