Mud Creek Now Mud Point

May 23, 2017

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Punta Barro: Big Sur’s newest geographical feature (photo credit: Rock Knocker)

The Santa Lucia Mountains are very young. At just 5 million years old, they are still in the process of being born – punching upward out of the Pacific faster than the forces of wind, waves, rain, and gravity can wear them down. Their steep, unstable seaward wall, rising to over 5,000 feet at Cone Peak, is constantly eroding, sliding and collapsing into the sea.

This natural process has been greatly accelerated since the 1930s, when the construction of Highway One undercut and activated treacherous slopes and old slide zones from one end of Big Sur to the other.

Mud Creek is one of those treacherous slopes. It’s not even really a creek; just a highly saturated mountainside that constantly oozes mud and water and tends to creep or slide downhill during the rainy season. It’s been a problem area since the Highway was built.

In the 1960s, the Highway at Mud Creek featured a floating bridge. This was a bridge structure that, instead of spanning a canyon, sat directly on the ground or, in this case, the mud. As the slope crept downhill, the bridge would travel with it, slowly moving out of alignment with the Highway. Whenever it moved too far, Caltrans would simply drag it back up the slope and back into place.

Perhaps the mud dried out a bit at some point, because the floating bridge disappeared long ago and most locals eventually forgot a place called Mud Creek even existed.

That all changed this year, as persistent rains reactivated Mud Creek and made it one of the most problematic spots, among many problematic spots, along the coast. Weeks, if not months, ago, Big Sur Kate began warning that an immense amount of material appeared to be mobilizing above the Highway at Mud Creek and that a very large slide appeared imminent. She was right.

Last weekend, a very large and deep-seated landslide occurred at Mud Creek; a slide large enough to create a small new point and cove, significantly altering the shape of the shoreline in the area. No one seems to have even tried to estimate the size of the slide at this point. Caltrans simply describes it as “millions of tons.”

Besides inspiring awe, the slide has inspired a good deal of worry over the amount of time it may take to rebuild the Highway in the area. At this point, it is impossible to say how long that might be. As Caltrans will have to knock down or excavate any highly unstable material left above the Highway, before they can rebuild, everything depends on how much mud and rock remains poised to come down and how hard it will be to remove or stabilize it.

After Big Sur’s last major slide, the Julia Pfeiffer Burns slide in 1983, so much unstable material remained that the Highway stayed closed for over a year, while Caltrans undertook the largest earth-moving operation in their history. How much material will need to be removed at Mud Creek, and how long it will take, can’t be known until geologists have finished evaluating the remaining slopes – a process which it may not yet be safe enough to even begin.

Mud Creek 4:2:15

The approximate boundaries of the area that collapsed in last weekend’s slide are marked in red. Large as this slide was, it appears that only the lower portion of the Mud Creek slide zone failed in this event. With this buttressing gone, failure of higher altitude slopes may now be more likely.

Unfortunately, as can be seen in this pre-slide image from Google Earth, last weekend’s slide, big as it was, did not extend anywhere close to the top of the active slide area at Mud Creek. This suggests that a huge quantity of very unstable material may still be up there and that this slide event may be far from over.

It now seems likely that, until the new Pfeiffer Gulch Bridge is finished (hopefully in September), the only vehicular access to the coast between Pfeiffer Gulch and Mud Creek will be over the long, twisting, frequently one-lane, Nacimiento-Fergusson Rd.

This is a stretch of coast the includes Pacific Valley, Kirk Creek Campground, Limekiln State Park, the Camaldolese Hermitage, Lucia, Big Creek, Esalen Institute, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Deetjens, the Henry Miller Library, Nepenthe, Post Ranch, Ventana Inn, the Big Sur Bakery, and many other popular destinations.

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The Mud Creek slide in relation to the “town” of Gorda (which also sits on an active slide). The Mud Creek slide zone appears to extend all the way up slope to the yellowish head scarp in the upper right hand corner of this image.

As Gary Griggs, Kiki Patsch and Lauret Savoy put it in their excellent book Living With the Changing California Coast (highly recommended reading for coastal residents):

From Pacific Valley to the southern end of Big Sur at San Carporforo Creek, the terrain again becomes very steep and rugged. This entire section contains some of the weakest rock (serpentinite) of the Franciscan complex and is very prone to landsliding. Some development, single-family homes and small ranches, exists on the steep slopes west of Highway 1, even though the risk from landslides is quite high. The town of Gorda is built within a large ancient landslide complex. The interior portion of this large slide continues to slip on smaller, active slide planes, resulting in very high landslide risks.


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).


Soberanes Fire: Week Seven

September 2, 2016

Important caveats: Please note that the squares on the heat detection maps represent the expected margin of error, not the size of the area burned. In other words, the detection could have come from anywhere within the square. Also be aware that false detections do sometimes occur. An outlying or “over the line” heat detection is not, by itself, a confirmation that there is fire in the area indicated. In addition, the satellites do not detect heat everywhere that fire exists. Creeping, backing or smoldering fire is often not detected. Finally, the detections are only snapshots of moments in time. Flare ups that occur before or after a satellite pass may be entirely missed.

Also be aware that yellow squares disappear from the map after 6 days. These are not maps of the area burned since the fire began, just maps of where heat has been detected during the past week. Read the rest of this entry »


Flashback! Julia Pfeiffer Burns in the 1960s

July 19, 2016

Just a few shots from the days before traffic jams and crowds…

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At the Waterfall House with my mother and sister in 1966. Notice how the waterfall drops directly into the ocean. The beach formed after a 1983 landslide put a huge amount of material into the ocean just to the north.

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Mom and Sis on the terrace.

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Leading Mom around the house (I think this photo is from 1963). To get there, we rode down from the Highway on the funicular car.


Saint Serra: Vandalism & Genocide

October 25, 2015

On September 23, the day the Pope declared Junípero Serra a saint, between 20 and 30 people, mostly Native Americans, gathered in the Carmel Mission cemetery to pay respect to Serra’s victims.

The Mission cemetery is small and picturesque; a handful of “Indian Graves” marked by crude wooden crosses and lined with abalone shells. This is all for show.

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In reality, there are no individual graves here. This is a mass grave and the soil under foot is rich with human bone fragments. Read the rest of this entry »


Car Week

August 19, 2015

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Concours d’Arrogance: America’s premier celebration of the lifestyle that’s destroying the planet.

My great-grandfather, Alec Eells, was a San Francisco attorney in the 1890’s. That is, his office was in San Francisco. His actual business was all over the state. He needed to be in Sacramento one day, Santa Barbara the next, then back to San Francisco for an early court session, etc. I know this because he kept a careful diary. Read the rest of this entry »


Up Against the Wall: Steelhead and the Carmel Lagoon Ecosystem Protective Barrier

February 9, 2015

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The Carmel River Lagoon in 1947 (Laidlaw Williams photo)

There’s been some uproar lately over the plan to build a flood barrier in the Carmel River Lagoon and people have been asking on social media and elsewhere why anyone would propose to place such an assumed-to-be-ugly wall along the northern margin of such a beautiful wetland. A better question may be whether we can find a way to live our lives that doesn’t prevent steelhead from living at all. Either way, it’s a long story… Read the rest of this entry »