Officials, homeowners aim to corral Aptos Creek
By Kimberly White — Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 02/24/2011 07:01:55 PM PST

RIO DEL MAR – Small fingers of sand have emerged from beneath Aptos Creek, an indication the water is retreating from the bluffs it’s threatened during recent months.

But Vivian Neasham, whose home stands near the edge of the bluff – which overlooks the creek and beach beyond – wondered aloud Thursday what effect the storms predicted to thunder across the area in the coming days will have.

The mouth of the creek is about 300 feet away from the Neasham’s house, and for most of the year, the water flows directly down the beach to the ocean. But each year, winter storms cause it to take a more roundabout path for months at a time.

Since last fall, it’s snaked roughly 600 yards south from the mouth, cutting a path parallel to both the beach and bluff. Its proximity to the bluff has prompted complaints from homeowners, who fear their homes could collapse, and its length and width have prompted complaints from beachgoers who have to navigate around it to get to the beach.

Earlier this month, representatives from the county, State Parks, State Sen. Sam Blakeslee’s office and one of the homeowners gathered to discuss a long-term solution to the problem. In an e-mail, Pirie said the county “is trying to help the homeowners and the state agencies reach an agreement.”

Finding a solution is complicated by the fact that it would involve multiple entities, from the homeowners, county officials and State Parks to the Department of Fish and Game and the California Coastal Commission. The latter two agencies, Pirie explained, “are key players and would have to give permits for any modifications of the stream bed.”

Don Hill, the county’s assistant director of public works, said several different approaches were discussed, from redirecting the creek to creating a partnership between the county and homeowners.

But “these are all brainstorming things, nothing is set in stone right now,” he added.

At least one of those ideas may take some shape at another meeting slated to take place next month. Pirie, Hill and others who attended the first meeting are expected to attend, as well as a representative from the state Department of Fish and Game.

However, Capt. Don Kelley of the state Department of Fish and Game maintained the agency’s position that the situation does not constitute a public emergency, which the county first must declare before any work permits can be issued.

Fish and Game officials will not participate in any breaching or construction work that results from the meetings, Kelley said, but the agency will issue any necessary permits on the condition that the work doesn’t affect the habitat of endangered steelhead trout and tidewater goby.

“It is not a Fish and Game emergency, but there are simple solutions that I feel can be employed there that would prevent this from happening in the future,” such as constructing a wall near the mouth of the creek to prevent it from snaking south toward the bluff, he added.

Hill expressed surprise at the mention of an emergency permit. The county obtained one in order to breach the area two years ago, he said, but officials were told at the time that such permits would never be issued again.

Susan Craig, a planner with the state Coastal Commission, will not attend the March 9 meeting, but will get updates from both the State Parks representative and homeowner representative who will be there.

Meanwhile, she said, the commission has to be presented with evidence – either through an official report or convincing photographs – that something is being endangered, whether it’s the bluff or public safety.

Jurisdiction over the area still must be determined, she added. For example, homeowners have attempted to stabilize the bluff with boulders in recent years, and that area is considered private property. The beach, however, is State Parks property. The Coastal Commission likely has jurisdiction over the mouth of the creek, she said, since a barrier has been created there to prevent stream bank erosion.

County officials have received complaints that the creek is hindering public access to the beach, but Craig said that doesn’t constitute a public emergency – it’s more of an inconvenience.

“If it’s not threatened in terms of public access, we have to be shown what the public detriment is,” she added.