The “Control” of Nature and Other Myths

John McPhee wrote a book called The Control of Nature, published in 1989, about human attempts to control Nature, the Mississippi River, Iceland volcanoes and the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. It’s a good read about human folly in the face of a variable Nature and the impossibility of controlling it.

Harbor beach small
Photo by Jean Brocklebank

It seems that some folks in Santa Cruz, California haven’t read their McPhee, or if they did, they’ve forgotten the lessons the author so well explained.

In 1964, City fathers decided to build a small craft harbor in Woods Lagoon, a natural estuary fed by Arana Creek flowing down from the mountains in the north, on the borderline between the City of Santa Cruz and the unincorporated Santa Cruz County. The harbor was initially dredged with monies provided by the Army Corps of Engineers, and expanded in 1973 to its current 800 slip capacity, soon filled with fishing boats and pleasure craft.

Either the Corps of Engineers (Beaver Corps) didn’t know what they were doing, or they forgot to mention to equally eager City Fathers that the lagoons along this stretch of coastal California are maintained in their lagooness by the eastward longshore drift of sand from rivers and streams emptying out into Monterey Bay, rivers such as the San Lorenzo just west of what once was Woods Lagoon.

The scene above illustrates what happens when humans attempt to interrupt the natural process of longshore drift with piles of rocks “protecting” an artificial channel where a lagoon used to collect sediment from upstream and upshore.

The beach seen on both sides of the channel results primarily from sand washing in from the San Lorenzo River, deposited in the channel at the south end of the harbor creating a sand bar that closes off the harbor during stormy winter months.

The Santa Cruz Port District, the quasi-governmental entity that manages the Santa Cruz Harbor, spends about a million dollars a year dredging the harbor channel from the north end where Arana Creek flows into the harbor to the south end. It does this every year, almost continuously, and it must keep this up forever. As we can clearly see in the picture above, even a momentary lapse in dredging would result in the mouth of harbor being closed to boat traffic entirely. To that end, the Port District is purchasing a brand new five million dollar dredge to replace the 30 year old machinery now in operation.

This epic effort to artificially maintain a harbor for pleasure craft and a few fishing boats in a waterway that wants to be a lagoon again is not the result of incompetence or malfeasance on the part of Port District personnel. This is merely one more example of human aspirations and desires blown out of scale beyond the capability of the local environment to support.

The harbor was conceived of and designed by developers looking to make money for themselves and the City of Santa Cruz (mostly for themselves) with no thought of the consequences to the local environment that ultimately would pay the price of this massive restructuring and attempt to control Nature. No studies were attempted to understand the natural systems and processes of the tidal lagoon they tried to destroy. No one studied longshore drift to find out where all that sand on the beaches came from, and what would happen if an impediment was built out to sea to interrupt that flow.

The developers and City politicians assumed, as always, that humans could change the Earth any way that suited them and that they could ultimately control those natural processes that they so drastically modified.

Now the bill has arrived, and its a whopper. In order to attempt to control Woods Lagoon and keep it from returning to its former self, they must find a way keep the dredge operation going indefinitely into the future, an operation dependent on thousands of gallons of diesel fuel to keep the dredge running and removing sand from the harbor mouth. Can’t do it on solar and wind energy. This takes Big Energy to build the massive dredge barge to begin with, and to horse it around the harbor, suck up the accumulating sediment and pump it back out to the ocean downshore.

This is just one example of human society reaching the limits of its ability to grow and to modify the natural world in its own image. Clean water, clean air and energy that doesn’t pollute either of them are in increasingly short supply. Santa Cruz has discovered there’s not enough potable water available for continued economic and population growth. The Port District is discovering they can’t charge enough slip fees to pay for the increasing cost of keeping the harbor open for slip renters to operate their boats year round. The City and the County are discovering that the faster they grow the behinder their budget gets.

As with all things living, there is an optimum limit in size and complexity for human societies, a limit that has been surpassed. The more humans try to control the natural world for our benefit, the more energy and resources we must expend to simply maintain what we already have built.

We cannot control the natural world, we can only learn to cooperate with it.


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