Big Sur Highway Mayhem Map

March 18, 2017

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The Highway has been mostly closed for over a month now, but sooner or later it will be business as usual again.

There’s been concern expressed recently about the safety of Highway One through Big Sur. Not concern about the inherent danger of a narrow, twisting road perched on the side of a cliff, but concern about new dangers created by congestion and overcrowding.

As anyone who lives, works or spends time in Big Sur knows, the Highway has gotten very, very crowded over the past five years or so. Why has the number of visitors increased so drastically? Is it social media? Advertising? Shifting dynamics of domestic and international tourism? No one seems to know for sure.

What people do know is that they’re frustrated with the traffic and crowds.

Traffic now routinely comes to a standstill at hotspots like Pt. Lobos, Bixby Bridge and Julia Pfeiffer Burns. Tourists park cars blocking the lane. Pedestrians run through narrow gaps in traffic to reach popular parks and trails. “Whale jams” appear wherever feeding humpbacks draw a crowd. There are times when traffic is stop and go from the Big Sur Valley to Carmel and beyond.

Many have called for drastic measures to be taken in the name of safety (as well as in the name of resource protection – but that’s a topic for another day). Suggestions include imposing a toll, limiting entry and requiring reservations, banning roadside parking near popular attractions, banning large RVs, and even banning bicycles.

What there hasn’t been a lot of is actual data. Data capable of allowing us to separate the merely annoying from the actually dangerous.

Which is why I’ve created this map. Its purpose is to provide real information, based on Highway Patrol accident reports about what kind of accidents are happening, and where.

Obviously, it is not perfect. It is based on imperfect data and I have doubtless made some mistakes in getting it onto the map. The locations of individual accidents are approximate and the most recent are the least exact, as the Highway Patrol, beginning in August 2015, began using vague descriptions, rather than mile post markers, to locate accidents. It is also likely that the descriptions of what caused accidents are sometimes in error. Like my fire maps, this map is intended to give an informative overview, rather than precise boundaries or definitive information on specific incidents.

The map covers the 72 miles of Highway between the Carmel River and the Monterey County line, and the past three years (2014-2016). Marked on the map are the 356 accidents reported by the Highway Patrol during this time (104 in 2014, 136 in 2015, and 116 in 2016). These accidents resulted in injuries to 173 people (56 in 2014, 69 in 2015, and 48 in 2016), and 7 deaths (3 in 2014 and 2015, 1 in 2016).

Single-vehicle accidents caused by a failure to stay on the road were the most common (164 accidents), suggesting that the twisting nature of the road remains the greatest hazard, but the next most common cause of accidents (vehicles rear-ending slowing or stopped traffic) is clearly related to congestion. 61 accidents were caused in this way.

Other significant causes of accidents were drifting into the wrong lane (28 accidents), hitting objects in the road (24 accidents), unsafe passing (20 accidents), and left turns and U-turns into oncoming traffic (20 accidents each).

6 accidents involved pedestrians (5 in 2014 and 1 in 2015). 2 were pedestrians hit by backing vehicles in turnouts, 3 were pedestrians actually in the roadway, and 1 was the woman tragically killed at Julia Pfeiffer Burns when she was rolled over by her own car. Interestingly, none of the three pedestrians hit in the roadway were hit at the major trouble spots (like Pt. Lobos, Soberanes, Bixby and Julia Pfeiffer Burns) where it’s been suggested that Highway parking should be banned in the interest of pedestrian safety.

Bicycles were involved in just two collisions. The first, between Palo Colorado and Rocky Creek, was hit by a driver making an unsafe turn (the kind of accident that could befall a cyclist anywhere). The second, near Kirk Creek, was sideswiped by a car (exactly what the anti-bike crowd has long predicted would happen to cyclists in Big Sur!), but did not sustain any injury.

A few things I’ve noticed in looking at the map include:

A lot of people either drive too fast or don’t pay enough attention, or both.

The intersections of Sycamore Canyon and the Old Coast Rd. (at Molera) with the Highway are even more dangerous than I thought.

There are a lot fewer accidents than you might expect at Bixby Bridge (although there are plenty at the other congestion hot spots).

Accidents anywhere in the vicinity of Rocky Creek inevitably result in injury.

A large section of Highway, with Esalen at its center (from just south of JPB, nearly to Big Creek), is the safest stretch of road on the coast. Maybe all the serenity emanating from Esalen has an effect on drivers?

Please Note:

Blue pins are non-injury accidents.

Orange pins are injury accidents.

Black pins are fatal accidents.

Click through for details.

See what you can find…


Big Sur River Above Flood Stage for Fifth Time This Year

February 20, 2017

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South Coast oaks in the rain

Heavy pre-dawn rain has pushed the Big Sur River above the 10-foot level that marks its official “flood stage” for the fifth time in less than two months.

As of 9:00 am, the river was at 10.30 feet, which indicates a flow of 3,530 cubic feet per second.

On January 12, the Big Sur River hit 12.34 feet (or 7,650 cfs – more than twice the current flow); the second highest peak recorded since the gauge was installed. The highest was an amazing 10,700 cfs, recorded in January 1978, following the Marble Cone Fire.

This morning’s rain can’t be helping the situation at Pfeiffer Gulch, where a slide has been slowly pulling down the Highway bridge. Interestingly, when the bridge was built in the 1960’s, Caltrans erroneously signed it as the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and, taking their cue from the sign on the collapsing bridge, everyone now seems to be referring to the place as Pfeiffer Canyon.

It’s not the first time this ravine has undergone a name change or, apparently, had bridge trouble. According to Clark’s Monterey County Place Names, the Pfeiffers themselves knew the place as Burnt Bridge Creek.

See the Big Sur River Gauge here.

Noon Update: As of 11:45 the Big Sur River was still rising and had reached 10.85 feet, or 4,370 cfs.

1:00 pm Update: As of 12:45, the Big Sur River had reached 11.07 feet (4,730 cfs). The Carmel River is also rising and is projected to crest more than a foot above its January high water mark. If this happens, there will almost certainly be some flood damage.

2:00 pm Update: The Big Sur River has been level at 11.10 feet (4,790 cfs) for the past half hour. Rain is expected to become more intense this evening, so another rise will be possible tonight.

5:30 pm Update: As of 5:15 pm, the Big Sur River had receded to 10.3 feet (3,530 cfs); which is still above flood stage. Rain is beginning to pick up again over the Big Sur watershed and, if that continues, the river may begin rising again soon.

7:00 pm Update: Hard rain is falling and the Big Sur River is on the rise again. 10.40 feet (3,680 cfs) as of 6:30 pm.

9:00 pm Update: The Big Sur River is rising quickly and has surpassed this afternoon’s peak. As of 8:45 it was at 11.78 feet (5,960 cfs).

10:00 pm Update: Has the Big Sur River found its peak? It made it to around 12.22 feet, just shy of last month’s high water mark of 12.34 feet (the 2nd highest peak ever recorded), but has now (as of 9:45 pm) dropped back to 11.97 feet (6,310 cfs).

11:30 pm Update: The Big Sur River is rising again and, as of 11:15 pm, was back to 12.13 feet (6,570 cfs).

Midnight Update: That rise was short-lived. The Big Sur River is back under 12 feet and falling. Unless unexpectedly heavy rains arrive, it should continue to fall throughout the night.

12:30 pm 2-21-17 Update: The Big Sur River finally went back below flood stage around 11:00 this morning. Its twin peaks last night may have been a bit lower than the January high water mark, but the fact that it remained above flood stage for more than 24 hours is probably some kind of record.

As of 11:45 am, it was at 9.9 feet (2,940 cfs).


Big Sur River Over Flood Stage for the Third Time in a Week

January 10, 2017

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Waterfall in the upper Big Sur drainage: You have to wonder what places like this look like right now…

The Big Sur River has done it again. As of 7:30, it is back over flood stage at 10.31 feet (4,620 cfs). Still a ways to go to match Sunday’s peak of 11.80 feet (6,820 cfs).

7:45 pm Update: Now 10.54 feet (4,950 cfs).

8:15 pm Update: Now 10.82 feet (5,360 cfs).

8:30 pm Update: Now 11.17 feet (5,890 cfs). Flow just increased by 530 cfs in only 15 minutes.

8:45 pm Update: Now 11.30 feet (6,080 cfs).

9:00 pm Update: Now 11.34 feet (6,140 cfs).

9:15 pm Update: Now 11.29 feet (6,070 cfs). Looks like we may have found the peak.

Also at 9:15, the National Weather Service placed a Severe Flash Flood Warning on the Soberanes Fire Burn area, due to heavy rain. They say they expect the Big Sur River to continue to rise.

Radar, in the other hand, indicates that rain over the Big Sur watershed is easing.

9:45 pm Update: Looks like the decline was just a hiccough. The Big Sur River is now at 11.44 feet (6,290 cfs). The NWS was right.

10:15 pm Update: Now 11.73 feet (6,720 cfs) – only 80 cfs below Sunday’s peak.

10:30 pm Update: Now 11.76 (6,760 cfs) – only 40 cfs below Sunday’s peak.

11:00 pm Update: The Big Sur River is now at 12.01 feet (7,150 cfs) – the second highest level ever measured on this stream. The greatest was 14,30 feet (10,700 cfs), in 1978. That record won’t likely be challenged tonight.

11:15 pm Update: Now 12.13 feet (7,330 cfs).

11:30 pm Update: Now 12.34 feet (7,650 cfs) – another quick rise.

11:45 pm Update: Now 12.25 feet (7,510 cfs). Another hiccough, or has the peak finally passed?

Midnight Update: Now 12.20 feet (7,430 cfs). Looks like the peak has really passed this time.

The main concern now is how high the Carmel River will go. It is still rising at the Los Padres Dam and is already higher there than it got on Sunday.

7:00 am Update: It looks like the Carmel River peaked at around 9.1 feet (just over flood stage) at Rosie’s Bridge in the early morning hours. That’s a bit over 7,000 cfs. The peak is now near the river mouth, where it has swollen to over 10,000 cfs – thanks to runoff from Garzas Creek and other lower tributaries.

 


Big Sur River Back Above Flood Stage

January 8, 2017

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Big Sur Rain

Shortly before 3:00 pm this afternoon, the Big Sur River pushed its gauge above the 10 foot level that marks the official flood stage. The gauge was at 10.04 feet by 3:00, or 4,250 cubic feet per second. The river reached a peak flow of 4,950 cfs last Wednesday (10.54 feet).

Heavy rain is still falling over the Big Sur watershed at this time, but should begin decreasing soon as the storm moves off to the south. The watershed is small, so the river won’t keep rising for long, once the rain relents. Serious flooding is unlikely to occur until the gauge height exceeds 11 feet.

3:30 pm Update: River now at 5,250 cfs (Gauge height 10.75). That’s an increase of 1,000 cfs in half an hour.

4:00 pm Update: River now at 6,020 cfs (11.26 feet). Still rising quickly, though not as quickly. This is the largest flow the Big Sur River has seen since 6,590 cfs was recorded in February, 1998. Radar suggests heavy rain is still falling in the Big Sur watershed.

4:45 pm Update: River now at 6,420 cfs (11.53 feet). Rain may be easing some.

5:00 pm Update: Latest reading is 6,620 cfs (11.66 feet). This exceeds the 1998 flow and is the third highest flow ever recorded on the Big Sur River (after 1978 and 1995).

5:15 pm Update: Now the second largest flow ever recorded on the Big Sur River at 6,700 cfs (11.72 feet). With rain beginning to recede, there’s not much chance of it matching the 1978 flow of 10,700 cfs, I’m glad to say. Flows have been recorded since 1950.

5:30 pm Update: Still inching upward. Now 6,790 cfs (11.78 feet).

5:45 pm Update: 6,820 cfs (11.80 feet). How high will it go?

6:00 pm Update: Still 6,820 cfs at 6:00 pm. Have we finally found the peak?

6:15 pm Update: Yes! The river is now receding. 6,790 cfs (11.78 feet) at 6:15.

 

 


Big Sur River Above Flood Stage

January 4, 2017

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Heavy overnight rain falling on the Soberanes Fire burn scar has pushed the Big Sur River Gauge over the 10 foot level that is considered flood stage. The current level (at 6:00 am) is 10.48 feet. This translates to a flow of 4,860 cubic feet per second; essentially matching the 4,900 cfs peak flow of 2012 (which did not result in serious flood damage). The highest flow recorded at the Big Sur River Gauge, following the Marble Cone Fire in 1978, was 10,700 cfs.

The Big Sur River, with its smaller watershed, reacts to rain more quickly than the larger coastal streams. The Carmel River at Rosie’s Bridge is at 1,170 cfs and rising (peak flow there was 16,000 cfs in 1995).

The Arroyo Seco River Gauge is still only showing 161 cfs, but with some portions of its watershed receiving over 7 inches of overnight rain, the water will be rising quickly this morning.

The parched San Antonio River, which only began flowing past the gauge site on December 31, has only risen to 37 cfs… so far.

The Nacimiento River is at 4,350 cfs, an inconsequential amount for a stream that sometimes produces flows in excess of 50,000 cfs.

7:00 am Update: The Big Sur River is now above its 2012 peak; at 4,950 cfs (10.54 feet). The Arroyo Seco is at 1,140 cfs.

7:30 am Update: The Big Sur River has begun to drop. It’s currently at 4,720 cfs (10.38 feet). The Carmel River is up to 1,790 cfs. The Arroyo Seco is up to 1,990 cfs. The Nacimiento is up to 5,540 cfs.

9:30 am Update: The Big Sur River, at 9.95 feet (4,130 cfs), is no longer above flood stage. The Carmel River is at 2,630 cfs. The Arroyo Seco River has jumped to 7,560 cfs. The San Antonio River is barely changed at 39 cfs; and the Nacimiento now has the greatest flow, with 7,800 cfs. Some of the wettest spots along the Coast Ridge have received over 10 inches of rain since this storm began.

1:30 pm Update: The peaks have now passed on the local streams. It looks like the Nacimiento and Arroyo Seco rivers got up into the neighborhood of 12,000 cfs, or so, and the Carmel to around 2,700 cfs. The San Antonio, which must be dumping a lot of water into its bone dry aquifer, is still only pushing 41 cfs past the gauge.

With an even wetter storm forecast for this weekend, it would be prudent for those who live near streams to prepare for debris flows and the possibility of record, or near record, water levels.

 

 


“Atmospheric River” Produces Little Run Off

December 16, 2016

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Once saturated, scorched slopes like these, can produce dangerous debris flows. It just has to rain hard enough and long enough.

The atmospheric river type storm that swept through the Santa Lucia Mountains yesterday produced close to the advertised 6 inches of rain at the wettest Coast Ridge spots, but produced relatively little run off and no serious debris flow problems.

While slides predictably closed Highway One on the South Coast (it will probably reopen later this afternoon), the larger streams pretty much shrugged the event off.

The Big Sur River peaked at over 1,000 cfs last night, but its channel can accommodate many times that much water without difficulty. For comparison, during the storms following the Marble Cone Fire, in January 1978, the Big Sur River reached a record 10,700 cfs.

The Nacimiento River, whose watershed did not burn, reached the highest flow of any Santa Lucia stream early this morning, with around 2,500 cfs. That is a relative trickle for a stream that has produced flows exceeding 50,000 cfs during extreme rain events. No water has, so far, even reached the bone dry San Antonio River gauge.


Soberanes Fire: Week Twelve

October 7, 2016

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As the twelfth, and hopefully final, week of the Soberanes Fire begins, 132,100 acres have burned and containment has reached 98%.

Some of the best information currently available on the state of the burned area is contained in the recently released Soberanes Fire Watershed Emergency Response Team (WERT) Report.

The first significant rain of the season may arrive during the coming week. Hopefully, it will be enough to put the fire definitively out, but not enough to set off damaging debris flows in denuded watersheds.

Update: The Soberanes Fire was declared 100% contained on Wednesday, October 12, 2016; almost a full 12 weeks after it began on July 22.