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Along the crumbling Sonoma coast, an ambitious project paves the way for 'managed retreat'

By Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

With most of the homes and beach now gone, the highway has struggled to hold the line between land and sea. Since 2004, Caltrans has spent about $10 million in emergency defenses and failed repairs. The cliffs and beach today are cluttered with remnants of human engineering.

"This is what unmanaged retreat looks like, and it is quite frankly a hot mess of septic systems, old house parts and armoring that have fallen into the intertidal zone with no real mechanism for cleaning it up," said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. "If we don't start planning ahead and taking proactive measures, Mother Nature will make the decisions for us."

In an interagency collaboration that many said was a major coup in government bureaucracy, Caltrans, the coastal commission and county leaders came together and hammered out a plan to relocate 0.7 miles of the highway — largely with a new 850-foot bridge spanning Scotty Creek where it meets the ocean.

Compromise wasn't easy: Officials studied more than 20 alternatives that tried to balance safety codes, traffic needs, fragile habitats, public access to the coast and other competing requirements that were tricky to meet given the topography — not to mention all the nearby properties and getting a skeptical community on board.

The concrete bridge (a monstrous overpass or a reasonable compromise, depending on who's talking) will allow the creek to flow freely into the ocean again — making room for more red-legged frogs, Myrtle's silverspot butterflies and the passage of steelhead trout and Coho salmon. Elevating the highway avoids paving over wetlands, officials said, giving these drowning habitats the space to migrate inland as the sea rises.

Caltrans also agreed, as part of the project, to pay $5 million to help clean up the mess of abandoned homes and failed road repairs. Another $6.5 million will go toward wetland, creek and prairie restoration. Some of the old highway will be converted into a coastal trail, and the public will have access to a new parking area and a beach that was once limited by private property.


Officials have also set aside $2.7 million to negotiate and acquire land from three private properties, including necessary portions of a nearby ranch that will be most impacted by the realigned highway. Once completed, much of the open space will be transferred to Sonoma County to manage on behalf of the public.

Philip and Roberta Ballard, the ranch owners, said they've come to understand the necessity of this project. The bridge still feels way too big — especially for this rural stretch of paradise that first captured their hearts 21 years ago — but the Ballards have dedicated their energy over time into making sure Scotty Creek gets restored as part of the deal.

The creek, the largest watershed between Salmon Creek and the Russian River, has needed help for years, they said. In addition to its flow getting choked by a culvert that was installed in 1952 for the highway, the lower creek has been denuded of its vegetation.

"A lot of our efforts have gone into trying to make the best out of something that is necessary," said Roberta Ballard, who is an emeritus professor of pediatrics, along with her husband, at the University of California, San Francisco. "But the bridge is pretty ugly."


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