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.


April Wildflowers

April 19, 2017

All that rain has really gotten the wildflowers going this month. Here are some highlights from the past few weeks:

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California goldfields (Lasthinia californica) and Gray’s clover (Trifolium grayi), share a meadow at The Indians in the upper Arroyo Seco watershed.

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Monterey mariposa lily (Calochortus uniflorus) blooming at Ft. Ord National Monument.

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Denseflower owl’s clover (Castilleja densiflora) in Carmel.

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Tidestrom’s lupine (Lupinus tidestromii), a federally listed endangered species, attempts to assure its continued existence on the planet by setting some robust seed pods. Development of the beachfront dunes where it makes its home has brought this Monterey native to the brink of extinction.

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Monterey gilia (Gilia tenuiflora arenaria), an even more highly endangered species, is another struggling denizen of the Monterey Peninsula’s vanishing dune ecosystems.

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Pink sand verbena (Abronia umbellata) is holding its own better against the onslaught of houses, hotels and ice plant.

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Yellow sand verbena (Abronia latifolia) is also doing well.

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Orange sand verbena??? Probably the result of a genetic variation. Unexpected color schemes frequently complicate the task of identifying plants.

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Pacific silver-weed (Potentilla anserina pacifica) is salt-tolerant enough to grow right down to the beach.

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Beach evening-primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia). Imagine the lupine, gilias, verbenas, silver-weeds, and evening-primroses covering the dunes instead of houses and ice plant and you’ll get an idea of what the Monterey coast looked like 100 years ago.

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Pipestem clematis (Clematis lasiantha) along Paloma Creek.

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Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) along the Carmel Valley Rd.

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Indian pink (Silene laciniata californica) in the San Antonio River watershed.

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Canyon liveforever (Dudleya cymosa) at The Indians.

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Mesa brodiaea (Brodiaea jolonensis), named for the bustling town of Jolon; also at The Indians.

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Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) along the Arroyo Seco River.

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A Santa Lucia easter egg balanced on a ridge…

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And it’s not just flowers that like a little warm spring rain. How about highly prized white porcini (Boletus barrowsii) fruiting in a Carmel city park?

 


Cal-Am Announces Coal-Based Water Source for Monterey Peninsula

April 1, 2017

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The Cemex site: Future location of a Coal-Fired water plant?

The Monterey Peninsula must act quickly to end its reliance on illegal water diversions from the Carmel River. Otherwise the State Water Resources Control Board, which has stood by doing nothing about the illegal diversions for more than 30 years, will likely issue a new set of empty threats and just might, eventually, order mandatory rationing – something we all know would destroy the local economy. After all, without plenty of water, how can our visitor-serving industries serve our visitors?

After more than a decade of planning, the desal plant the community had pinned its hopes on remains little more than an ever expanding library of expensive studies. Beset by problems with its unproven slant-well technology and a battle over water rights, it is unclear when, if ever, the plant might break ground, let alone produce water.

So it is welcome news that the creative minds at Cal-Am have identified yet another highly speculative, energy intensive, and ruinously expensive solution to the Peninsula’s water woes. The idea is to build a large coal gasification plant on the Cemex property north of Marina (alongside the proposed desal plant). Hydrogen produced by the gasification process would then be combined with oxygen and ignited in a combustion chamber to form water. Coal would be imported by rail from mines in the Midwest, helping to realize the President’s dream of putting coal miners back to work.

Cal-Am says they’re very excited about this new project and, given that they make their money through a guaranteed return on their investment in the water system, why wouldn’t they be? The more they spend, the more they earn. The fun only stops if the PUC decides the spending is no longer reasonable and necessary. And who knows what it would take to reach that theoretical limit?

After all, they’ve already found it reasonable and necessary to site the desal plant miles up the coast from where the water is needed, requiring millions in new infrastructure to transport the water back to the users. They’ve found it reasonable and necessary to place the wells where some of the water they’ll capture already belongs to the Salinas Valley, adding millions to the cost of running the plant (since it will have to desalinate far more water than Cal-Am’s ratepayers actually need). They’ve found projected costs that far exceed the costs of similar desal plants reasonable and necessary. They didn’t even have a problem with ceding their oversight responsibility to a water board elected by people entirely outside the Cal-Am service area – and with zero personal stake in keeping Cal-Am water rates under control.

And what’s the big deal about cost anyway? The rate structure carefully protects water hogs in the business community from the punitive rates applied to residential customers who stumble over the line into higher tiers.

The “conventional wisdom” may be that technical problems with producing sufficient water in this way are far too numerous to make it feasible. Naysayers may point to the massive air quality and global warming impacts. Bean counters may complain that the water would be more expensive drop for drop than HP Printer Ink. But you don’t know what you can accomplish until you try!

And even if Cal-Am never manages to solve every problem, as long as they spend plenty of the ratepayer’s money working on it, they’ll have done their job.

Cal-Am’s profits, let us never forget, are based on how much money they can get away with “investing” in the water system. The amount of water they actually produce and deliver is irrelevant.


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…


Low-Lying Areas of Carmel Valley being Evacuated as River nears Flood Stage

February 20, 2017

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A good day for ducks at the Carmel River Lagoon

A mandatory evacuation has been ordered for all low-lying areas of Carmel Valley, as the Carmel River continues to rise toward a projected peak of 10.4 feet at the Robles del Rio gauge.

Here is the message from the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services:

A mandatory evacuation order has been given for residents who may be affected by flooding on the Carmel River.

The Carmel River is expected to hit flood stage beginning at 4 pm today and peak beginning at 8 pm tonight. Those affected are asked to leave as quickly as feasible. Areas that may be impacted by flooding include all low-lying areas adjacent to the entire stem of the river from the Los Padres Dam to Mission Fields.

The Red Cross has established an evacuation center at Carmel Middle School, 4389 Carmel Valley Road. The SPCA of Monterey County will be on hand to assist evacuees with their companion animals, please call the SPCA if you have large animals that need to be removed 831-373-2631.

Call 211 or text 898-211 “windstorm” for additional information.

As of 3:45 pm, the river was at 8.15 feet (5,600 cubic feet per second) at the Robles del Rio gauge.

Minor flood stage begins at 8.5 feet (revised down from 9 feet when minor flooding began along Paso Hondo at less than 9 feet last month). River systems are dynamic and rapidly changing during times of high water, making it impossible to predict exactly what will flood, or how deeply, at any given water level. This uncertainty is undoubtedly why such an extensive evacuation has been ordered.

The Carmel River reached 9.1 feet on January 11.

View the Robles del Rio gauge here.

5:30 pm Update: As of 5:00 pm, the Carmel River had actually gone down a little at the Robles del Rio gauge, measuring 8.06 feet (5,450 cfs), but heavy rain has begun moving into the area and, if it continues, this decline may be short-lived.

7:45 pm Update: As of 7:15 pm, the Carmel River had dropped to 7.73 feet (4,880 cfs), but it looks like it may have bottomed out and begun to climb again.

8:45 pm  Update: The Carmel River is officially on the rise again. 7.93 feet (5,230 cfs) as of 8:15 pm at Robles del Rio.

10:00 pm Update: At 8.54 feet, as of 9:45 pm, the Carmel River has now reached minor flood stage. It is flowing through Robles del Rio at about 6,300 cfs. The Hydrologic Prediction people have bumped the projected peak up to 10.8 feet. Hopefully, the river will peak below that level.

10:30 pm Update: As of 10:15 pm, the Carmel River was nearly back to its January high water mark. 9.0 feet at Robles del Rio (7,180 cfs).

11:00 pm Update: As of 10:45, the Carmel River was at 9.39 feet (8,030 cfs). This is the highest flow the Carmel River has seen since 1998, but still only about half the flow of the disastrous 16,000 cfs flood of 1995.

Midnight Update: As of 11:45, the river was up to 9.96 feet (9,370 cfs) at Robles del Rio. The good news is that the height of the water flowing over the spillway at Los Padres Dam appears to have leveled off, meaning the peak flow is probably passing, or has just passed, that location. Those near the river who have not evacuated should continue to carefully monitor the river and the upstream gauges.

5:30 am Update: The Carmel River peaked at around 10 feet on the Robles del Rio gauge, shortly after midnight – failing to reach the predicted 10.8 feet. As of 4:45 am it had slipped below flood stage to 8.44 feet (6,120 cfs). The peak, which has swollen to around 15,900 cfs as it has travelled downstream  is only now reaching the mouth of Carmel Valley.

8:00 am Update: The peak has now passed out to sea and all parts of the river are going down. As of 6:45 am, the Robles del Rio gauge was showing 8.06 feet (5,450 cfs) and, as of 6:30 am, the Near Carmel gauge was showing 14,100 cfs.

Here’s what the river mouth looked like an hour ago:


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).


Carmel River Reaches Minor Flood Stage

January 11, 2017

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About 10 times this much water is now flowing across the sandbar at the Carmel River mouth.

The Carmel River peaked at 9.1 feet early this morning at Rosie’s Bridge in the Carmel Valley Village. That’s a flow of more than 7,000 cubic feet per second – and the largest flow the Carmel River has seen since 1998. 9 feet at Rosie’s Bridge is considered “minor flood stage” – although some flooding did occur earlier this week with the river below that level.

Runoff from lower tributaries has increased the size of the peak as it has travelled down Carmel Valley and 10,100 cfs are now passing the “Near Carmel” gauge near the river mouth. Further upstream, at Rosie’s Bridge, the river has already dropped to 7.26 feet (4,450 cfs).

Contrary to speculation on social media, the removal of the San Clemente Dam is not causing higher flows in Carmel Valley. The dam had been silted in, and having no impact on river flows, for decades before it was demolished.

What is of concern, are reports that the river has scoured away the carefully constructed “step pools” in its bypass channel at the former dam site and is incising that channel more deeply, leading to bank collapse and the loss of trees in the riparian zone upstream. It will be interesting to see what the new channel looks like, and how accommodating it will be for fish, once the water goes down.

8:30 am Update: The peak flows have now moved out to sea and all parts of the river are quickly receding. Flow at the mouth is now under 9,000 cfs.