Big Sur, CA – After a few days of stormy weather, the Big Sur River is up and has turned a dark, chocolate brown. "In normal years, it would be like this maybe just during the rain and would clear up pretty fast, but what we're finding right now is the water is almost continuously like this, so there's a lot of sediment and silt that's coming down the river," said Hal Latta. He's standing atop a wooden bridge that connects his coastal neighborhood to Highway 1 in the Big Sur Valley.
"This is our major concern if this bridge gets taken out," said Latta, "The worst case would be like if a big Redwood tree or something like that came down the river and got lodged in here and jammed up in the bridge or something like that." This year the worst case scenarios can't be ignored because of last summer's Basin Complex Fire. In addition to destroying more than fifty buildings, the fire burned vegetation off steep mountain sides making Big Sur more prone to mud and rock slides.
So Latta helped organize a group called the Big Sur Community Emergency Response Team or CERT. "The way I envision it, CERT would be activated, if we have major slides where some portions of the road cut off from outside help, so these people would need to be self-sufficient for a prolonged period of time," said Latta. They're prepared to do everything from light search and rescue to making sure those in the isolated corners of Big Sur are taken care of until help arrives.
So far, the rain has caused some minor slides, easily cleaned up by CalTrans plows. Since the Fire, CalTrans completed about two dozen projects to keep major slides from reaching the road. Engineering Geologist John Duffy checks in on one of their largest debris flow barriers. It stretches across the canyon behind the Henry Miller Library. "The barrier itself consists of a, a system of steel rings, attached to steel cables, attached to steel posts and all founded on a system of ground anchors and foundations," said Duffy. It's designed to stretch under the pressure of literally tons of debris that could be brought down by rain water. "It's picking up rocks and trees and debris, creating this debris flow, if you will, and if you look up this drainage right now with these trees lying crisscross with some of them burnt and falling down they can all be scooped up in this mass and that's what's going to come tumbling down in these rings," said Duffy.
The barrier protects one of the 260 culverts that run under Highway 1 in the Big Sur area. Without it, locals know all to well what could happen. Cal Trans Major Damage Coordinator Steve Balaban recounts when a culvert clogged up after El Nino hit in 1998. "It was almost like a dam failure where the water came over the top of the roadway and scoured out the west embankment to the point where the road completely collapsed, and Big Sur was cut off for a period of months there until we could actually put the road back together, so that's the exact dynamic that were trying to prevent here," said Balaban.
In areas CalTrans didn't work, private property owners have taken their own precautions. Sandbags and concrete barriers surround the River Inn and Restaurant. General Manager Rick Aldinger said "There's a little bit more awareness this winter, but the main thing is that, it's winter time in Big Sur and that means things are unpredictable and you just need to be prepared." But Aldinger seems certain about one thing, this like all other Big Sur Winters will pass. "In the summer time we have our wooden lawn chairs that sit in the river and you can dip your toes in the water and have lunch. It's a great location, great place to be," he added.
Friday sunny skies are in the forecast for Big Sur, a chance of rain returns to the picture on Saturday.