Twisting road poses hazards
It’s a treacherous, serpentine stretch of Topanga Canyon Boulevard dubbed the Narrows, and it’s the bane of cyclists and runners alike.
Bounded by a sandstone bluff on one side and a sheer drop into the Topanga Canyon Creek on the other, the Narrows is infamous for washouts, landslides and fallen rocks that frequently paralyze long lines of commuters traveling between the Valley and the Westside.
Now, after years of ever-increasing traffic, local environmentalists say the Narrows is a disaster waiting to happen. They say that heavy erosion beneath the two-lane roadway is a danger to motorists, while debris from years of makeshift repairs has filled the canyon’s steep-walled creek and has imperiled a rare species of trout. The environmentalists are now calling for immediate repairs and spearheading their own effort to raise $36 million to $51 million for the project.
“It gets eroded each year during the rainy season . . . The concern is when the road fails again,” said Rosi Dagit, senior conservation biologist for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Caltrans officials say the Narrows is not a top priority and Ron Kosinski, deputy director for environmental planning, said there was no immediate funding for an initiative of mostly local concern. But he is working with Dagit to develop a strategy to try and find funding for the project outside traditional bureaucratic means.
The environmentalists claim that a long series of temporary repairs to the winding stretch have failed to solve basic structural problems.
A decades-old bridge about 100 yards south of the Narrows was washed out during a heavy storm in 1980, closing the pass for nearly six months while transportation officials scrambled to rebuild the bridge and reopen the road.
Since then, heavy storms have made the area impassable at least four other times. The state’s repairs usually involve placing tons of riprap and large boulders off to the side of the road to prevent further flood erosion. Even Kosinski acknowledges that those repairs are often expensive and inefficient.
“The issue is really primarily one of looking at things as long-term solutions opposed to continuous temporary solutions,” Kosinski said. “The problem is that they’re just short-term, interim quick fixes that are not very environmentally friendly. Just pouring rocks over the side every year that we have an incident there is not a long-term solution, and it causes all these other problems.”
Environmentalists say those other problems include erosion of the road’s natural supports and damage to the creek bed. Repair work threatens a population of about 100 Southern Steelhead Trout, an endangered species that inhabits the creek.
There are about 500 of the fish worldwide, Dagit said. She worries that after the next heavy downpour or natural disaster, authorities will be unable to repair the bridge without seriously harming the fish.
On Tuesday morning, Dagit led a group of about 15 people through the creek so they could see the problems up close. About 80 feet directly below the northbound lane of Topanga Canyon Boulevard was a 25-foot-deep gash where the natural supports have eroded.
In many places the riprap has broken off from the main road support and fallen into the creek.
Melina Watts, Malibu Creek Watershed coordinator, called the temporary repairs “duct tape” and said she and Dagit were proposing a major construction overhaul of the Narrows that would remove all of the riprap and infill clogging the creek, protect the endangered fish and ensure that stretch of road was not vulnerable to harsh rains and flooding.
Dagit said research on the creek began nearly a decade ago. Once it was identified as a major environmental concern, her group and a handful of others began a grass-roots campaign to fund a new project.
Dagit and Watts say that strategy currently means trying to find local grants that would pay for an environmental impact report that costs about $800,000, the next step necessary to future construction.
“This is a huge public safety concern,” Dagit said. “Some of the only Southern Steelhead Trout we have is in this creek.”