In Santa Cruz from the mid-1850s to 1940, the general vision was to be a “Great Seaport.” Use and development of all available resources was the default thinking of the day. To be a great seaport, Santa Cruz needed a great harbor. The problem was, Santa Cruz’s natural harbor was a fine anchorage in the summer, but in the winter gales from the south made it treacherous and often damaged the wharves.
Several plans were drafted to create harbors of various sizes. Early on, the plans were to make huge breakwaters and turn Santa Cruz’s natural harbor (and many of its now famous surf spots) into perpetually calm water. Several of these plans involved breakwaters starting at or near Lighthouse Point and extending eastward into the harbor for a quarter mile or longer. Later, when it was clear funding for the huge projects was never going to happen, more modest breakwaters were proposed.
A Small Craft Harbor Will Do
After World War II, rail and truck transportation were dominant. Shipping out of Santa Cruz was nonexistent, there was no money for large breakwaters, and State legislators were favoring small craft harbors that included recreation. Thus Santa Cruz shifted its focus to building a small craft harbor.
In 1946, Congress approved a harbor study for Santa Cruz. It took years of wrangling over location and funding, private, federal, state and local, but by 1958, a Santa Cruz Port District had been formed and federal legislation was passed approving the “Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor and Beach Erosion Project.” Wood’s Lagoon was selected over Neary Lagoon by the Corps of Engineers. The State showed its support by acquiring the land; making it a state park and leasing it back to the City.
The initial building of the project began in 1962 and was funded in roughly equal amounts by federal, state and local funds. The Harbor opened in April 1964. While it was not the “Great Seaport” envisioned by the forefathers it was to be a boon to commercial fisheries and the recreation and tourist industries.
The small craft harbor project was completed just prior to a big change in attitudes about development and the environment. The era when development and business interests were paramount was coming to an end; in Santa Cruz and across the country people were beginning to give environmental and social issues newfound importance.
The creation of The Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level (1970), and the formation of The California Coastal Commission (1972), are examples of this broader movement. An example of the local movement was the successful and epic early 1970s battle to save Lighthouse Field from becoming a very large conference center.
The coming of the University of California to Santa Cruz, coincidentally dedicated the day before the small craft harbor in April 1964, also played a part in the shifting of local politics. It brought a large new population of voters whose primary interests were not tied to the local economy.
Sand Moving South
In Santa Cruz, as along most of the California coast, waves from the northwest drive the flow of sediment and sand southward. This process is known as littoral drift. It can be thought of as a river of sand, just off-shore, moving south.
Anytime you put a blockage in this river, such as a jetty, you are going to block sand. Lots and lots of it. Unfortunately, many large breakwaters and jetties built prior to the late 1960s were done without a full understanding of littoral drift and its impacts. This harbor is no exception.
The specific impacts of disrupting littoral drift for the Santa Cruz Harbor have been:
Don’t Surf it Dude
The sand shoaling can produce surfable waves at the harbor mouth. It is illegal and quite dangerous to surf them. They are in a narrow and busy navigation channel and are super close to the jetty where you can get smashed on the huge cement “tetrapods.” However, being Surf City, some surfers have been known to take the risk — and the fine.
Harbor Light: A Transformation
There has been a harbor light and foghorn at the west jetty since the harbor opened. Prior to the current lighthouse however, the structures housing them have been fairly ugly and low budget — to put it mildly. For 32 years there was a boxy structure known as the “lunar lander.” That was replaced by a cylinder nicknamed “the water heater” in 1996. Then in 1999, the water heater was replaced by a simple pole and basket structure.
Apparently the 1996 structure was so ugly that locals Bill Simpkins and Jim Thoits couldn’t bear it any longer. Beginning in 1998, they spearheaded a campaign to replace the unsightly harbor light with a classic lighthouse. Funds were raised from the community and Charles Walton of Los Gatos, made a large donation in honor of his late brother, Derek, who served in the merchant marines and was lost at sea during World War II. On June 9, 2002, the Walton Lighthouse was officially opened and dedicated. Thank you to all who helped rectify decades of ugly and weird harbor entrance structures, and created a beautiful and meaningful one.
The 2011 Tsunami
The March 11, 2011 tsunami that began in Japan reached the Santa Cruz Harbor hours later. It created havoc within the harbor channel for more than 24 hours. The damage to harbor infrastructure was about $20 million, not including boats or private property. The Port Director, Lisa Ekers, secured state and federal disaster grant monies to cover all but $1.2 million of the necessary repairs. As of 2014, repairs to docks, electrical systems and other infrastructure are still continuing. Progress updates can be found at Tsunami Recovery.