Aptos Creek poses quagmire for Rio del Mar residents
Posted: 01/16/2011 10:56:59 PM PST

Aptos Creek may once again be threatening the stability of some million-dollar homes that sit on a bluff overlooking Rio del Mar Beach.

Residents again fear that their homes are on the verge of collapse.

Bob Neasham and his wife, Vivian, stood on the back patio of their beachfront home on a recent afternoon, peering over the edge of a low fence that sits close to the house. Beyond the fence, the bluff drops 5 to 10 feet, ending in the 25-foot-wide creek that several months ago was sandy beach.

Another big storm, they fear, and the entire bluff could be undermined enough to threaten their home.

Bob Neasham said he and the other homeowners are willing to pay for the construction of a trench at the mouth of the river so the water goes straight out into the ocean like it normally does, but they can’t get permission to do the work because the agencies involved don’t agree the situation is an emergency.

For most of the year, the creek flows directly to the ocean from its mouth at Rio del Mar Beach. But during the winter months, it takes a more circuitous route, flowing beyond the river mouth and cutting a swath along the beach before it joins the sea.

What appears to be a simple solution is actually complicated by a number of factors:

Dredging the channel involves a host of county, state and federal agencies;

County officials don’t consider the situation dire enough to warrant a public-emergency declaration, which is needed to obtain permits from federal and state agencies to do the work; and

The California Department of Fish and Game must issue the permit to start the work, but officials don’t see an imminent threat.

David LaVelle, a San Jose resident whose family owns a vacation home on Beach Drive, said he’s been directed to contact 10 different agencies for advice on how to rectify the problem.

“It’s like if you lived in the middle of an area of about eight tribal chieftains, and you weren’t sure which one you needed to go to,” he said. “That’s what it kind of feels like to be a property owner there.”

Lt. Don Kelley of the state Department of Fish and Game said part of the problem is that the entire area is a coastal lagoon that the creek naturally meanders through, and the homes are built on a marsh. Human intervention, he said, would affect the habitat of endangered steelhead trout and tidewater goby.

If residents really want something done about the problem, he said, they need to get a public-emergency declaration from the county. That would allow county officials to request the necessary permits from the other agencies.

District 2 Supervisor Ellen Pirie said the county has no jurisdiction over the area, and the issue is between the private property owners and State Parks.

However, the county will get involved in emergency situations. Last winter, as often happens, there wasn’t enough water in the creek to allow it to flow into the ocean and it backed up in a long, smelly pool of water. County officials ultimately deemed the standing water a health hazard and got permission to dig a direct channel.

When a nearby area flooded a couple of years ago, Pirie said, county officials also got permission from both State Parks and the California Department of Fish and Game to breach the creek. But after the work was completed, department officials said that would no longer be allowed because such work affects the hydrology of the area.

“I think these folks living there should be able to do whatever they need to do to protect their retaining wall, but I can’t do that,” she said. “They need to get permission from the state.”