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 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…


Parks, Taxes & Fracking: Measures E, X, and Z Pass

November 10, 2016

While voters at the national level were rejecting the neoliberal consensus of the Democratic and Republican elites by hurling a human bomb into the White House, voters in Monterey County quietly banned fracking and voted to tax themselves to support parks and transportation projects.

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Garland Regional Park: The passage of Measure E ensures that popular parks, like Garland, will continue to be adequately funded.

Measure E

The Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District needed a 2/3 majority vote on Measure E to prevent an assessment on real property (amounting to about $25.00 per year on single family homes) from expiring. The Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association predictably opposed the Measure.

There was a time when the Taxpayers Association (formed in the 1960s to prevent a public takeover of the water system) carried enough clout that their opposition would likely have prevented the District from achieving the needed super majority. Not this time.

Peninsula residents overwhelmingly expressed their support for keeping the parks and wildlands managed by the District adequately funded and Measure E passed with a, more than comfortable, 71% of the vote.

Measure X

I’ve written before (in long and boring detail) about the difficulties of getting the 2/3 vote needed to pass a transportation sales tax measure and become a “self-help” county, but it looks like the Transportation Agency for Monterey County has finally succeeded (this was their fifth try) by a razor thin margin of 67.36%.

This result was made possible by getting the environmental community on board (mainly by including $20 million for a bike and pedestrian trail to be built on the former Ft. Ord), while otherwise making the measure car-centric enough to avoid opposition from the Hospitality Association and Farm Bureau (both of which threatened to oppose the Measure due to the trail funding but, in the end, did not).

Measure Z

Oil interests, led by Chevron, probably set some kind of Monterey County record by spending more than $5 million in their unsuccessful effort to defeat Measure Z. On a dollars-per-vote-gained basis, though, they will probably still fall short of the better than $217 per vote Cal Am spent in 2014 to prevent the Monterey Peninsula Water District from finding out whether public ownership of the water system would make economic sense.

In an even marginally sane and science-driven world, Monterey County’s extremely carbon intensive oil (dirtier even than the infamous Canadian tar sands) would have been taken out of production more than 20 years ago (the urgent need to radically reduce carbon emissions was internationally recognized in 1988, let’s not forget), so Measure Z, which allows current operations to continue, is hardly a radical measure. It is, in fact, little more than a first tentative step toward protecting our water and climate. But the planet’s most powerful and irresponsible industries do not suffer interference in their operations gladly.

With nearly 56% of voters in favor, in spite of opponents outspending proponents by better than 30 to 1, this was an extremely impressive victory. Hopefully, it is a victory that will inspire others to take similar grassroots level action. The prospects for leadership on climate issues at the national and international levels aren’t looking so good.


A Boring Post About Transportation Policy

April 24, 2016

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Traffic

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in eight years of blogging, it’s that if you want anyone to read your stuff, don’t write about transportation issues. My 2008 posts examining the Transportation Agency for Monterey County’s failed efforts to pass a transportation sales tax measure remain, by a considerable margin, the least popular pages on this site. Last month’s post about current water levels in South County reservoirs got more page views in a few days than transportation-related posts get in years. Read the rest of this entry »


Long Summer

August 31, 2013

With the last rainy season fizzling out in January, it seems like it’s been summer for about eight months now. Plenty of time to paddle, pedal, and roam around in the hills — which is why we haven’t been posting here much. Don’t worry, though. We promise to turn our jaundiced eye back to water and development issues again someday soon. Maybe when the rains begin to fall.

In the meantime, here’re a few clues as to what we’ve been up to …

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Trail near the summit of Cone Peak. Coast partially obscured by smoke from an escaped controlled burn on Ft. Hunter Liggett. Read the rest of this entry »


Blanco Rd. Safety Improvements: Sanity Prevails

December 6, 2011

Sharin’ the Road

In a decision that bodes well for the future of sane public policy in Monterey County, the Board of Supervisors this afternoon voted 4-1 to go ahead with the long-planned and (with the exception of the Farm Bureau’s recent tantrum) completely uncontroversial bicycle safety improvements to Blanco Rd. A big thanks to the many, many people who took time away from work to attend today’s meeting and speak out for common sense. Read the rest of this entry »


Farm Bureau Demands County do Nothing to Improve Safety for Bikes on Blanco Rd.: Why Does this Sound Familiar?

December 3, 2011

Cyclists in the Salinas Valley

People who commute or otherwise ride their bikes between Salinas, CSUMB, Marina and the Monterey Peninsula tend to take Blanco Rd. – just as many of the people who drive between Salinas and these locations do. The reason is obvious. It’s the easiest and most direct route. Read the rest of this entry »