By Cole Parker
The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) has held the reputation as one of the nation’s leading party schools. The sunshine, the layout of Isla Vista and the proximity to the beach all contribute to a celebratory social environment with ample parties for students to enjoy. Although the fun, laid back lifestyle, inherent in the university’s culture is a major draw for students across the country, the effects of thousands of young adults drinking, parting and enjoying the beach has lasting effects on the local ecosystem. In recent years, local residents, student organizations and county officials have taken significant steps to limit the party culture in the Isla Vista community. Many students are frustrated by these restrictions, wanting to experience the festive events UCSB has historically been famous for, however, looking back at past events and the effect they have had on local ecosystems, specifically ocean life, these restrictions are necessary to maintain Santa Barbara’s uniquely beautiful environment. Currently, social distancing has led many students to return home, however, it is important for those who remain, and for future students to understand, why current restrictions are in place and the importance of maintaining our beaches, oceans and the local Santa Barbara ecosystem.
Historically, would-be partygoers have flocked from across California to the Isla Vista area, hoping to experience a bit of the legendary magic. Although Isla Vista’s Halloween may be the most famous event, the most environmentally catastrophic event was Float-Topia. This event typically took place on the first weekend, following spring break in early April. Float-Topia first began in 2003 and grew exponentially in terms of participants each following year. This event essentially involved students partying on the beach and in the water. Students either built or purchased floats and brought a variety of party-based items aboard, many of which ended up in the ocean. Although this event was an exciting time for many students, the environmental impact was devastating. In 2009, the Vice Chancellor of the university sent out an email stating that partiers had, “urinated in our ocean, destroyed vegetation on the cliffs, dropped broken glass and plastics of all shapes, sizes and varieties onto the sand and into the water, allowed garbage to be strewn along the shoreline down to Santa Barbara and beyond, destroyed habitat for any number of species, and killed untold numbers of fish and birds." As the event’s popularity grew, following its conception, local activist groups and government officials began to step in, fearing the long-term effects this kind of reckless partying would have on the local environment.
Local law enforcement and government officials worked to try to tame the event. They tried to institute restrictions where individuals looking to go to the beach had to do so empty-handed. However, this was ineffective and even with such restrictions the event continued to grow in scale and popularity, bringing with it more adverse effects on the environment. In 2009, Santa Barbara County banned Float-Topia. The massive amount of attendees and inability of local law enforcement to safely monitor and deal with the situation led to said actions by the county. Although the ocean is safer following these restrictions, organizations still work to raise awareness on the dangers of litter to marina life and the local ecosystem.
Organizations such as the Associated Students Environmental Affairs Board, worked with government and other student-run organizations to help preserve the ocean and beaches in the wake of Float-Topia. Student groups organized beach cleanups and worked to do their part to repair the damage done. Currently, it is illegal to go to the beach during the first weekend following Spring break. These efforts may seem extreme to some, but when looking at the alternative and the dangers to our local beaches and ocean, it is understandable why such restrictions would seek to limit reckless partying. Although the days of Float-Topia have passed, students continue to drink and party at local beaches. This is part of the UCSB culture and is unlikely to change. However, campus local authorities, Santa Barbara community members and student run organizations have made concerted efforts towards conservation.
These activist groups are needed now more than ever. Santa Barbara was one of the few counties in California, which never shut down their beaches during the Covid-19 pandemic. This has led hundreds of students and local families to flock to the beach in large numbers. Social distancing guidelines are not enforced and it is common to see local Isla Vista beaches full of people in close proximity. Everyone wants an escape from quarantine, leading students to eat, drink and party on the local beaches, enjoying the freedom that Santa Barbara provides. Cans, glass, plastic and other forms of liter are left behind. Local groups such as the aforementioned Associated Students Environmental Affairs Board, stress awareness as key to helping mitigate the issue of littering in the Isla Vista community. Such groups work to inform and educate on how much of an impact littering can have on the Santa Barbara oceans and surrounding wildlife.
Education is crucial in order to maintain the safety and integrity of our oceans and local environment. Part of that education process involves understanding why said regulations are in place. In a time of Covid-19, where everyone has been forced into an unnatural state of isolation and quarantine, it is natural to fight such restrictions. College kids, especially, may feel the need to rebel against what they view as unfair guidelines. The reasons for restrictions in the Santa Barbara community have similarities to the guidelines and restrictions surrounding Covid-19. Each set of restrictions is put into place in order to protect and maintain something of value, which is currently being threatened. In order to promote adherence to these policies, community buy in is essential. Once the greater community understands why such measures are in place, there’s a higher likelihood that community members will abide by the restrictions. I believe that education from student peers is the most effective way of helping fellow students understand the associated costs and how we each can be empowered to make a difference in supporting and maintaining the fragile ecosystem of our beloved ocean and beaches.