GHADs—peculiar agencies that safeguard the land

12 November 2018

It’s been a couple years since I’ve visited and written about the Leona Quarry site. It continues to fill with houses. The plantings of local plant species are doing OK, though they’d be happier without the drought. Here’s an updated view from Burckhalter Park, which I’ve visited occasionally since 2003 just for this purpose. (The trees keep getting taller.)

The highest and final residential level, Skyview Drive, is being populated now. The rest of the land will always be open space.

However, the land won’t be exactly natural. It will be intensively maintained. That sturdy concrete flume in the foreground, for example, is there so rainwater runoff from the slopes won’t start digging gullies. The runoff goes to a collection basin at the bottom of the slope that keeps all the muddy sediment and sends the water on into Chimes Creek.

Here’s more of that impressive drainage system, on a lower slope.

What about that high rock face standing in the back? Even from this distance, it looks a little ragged, a little menacing. During my last visit, in January 2016, I was up there and it looked like this.

That crumbling rock was pouring past this temporary barrier and overfilling one of those handsome concrete troughs.

It’s a big and constant job to maintain this infrastructure. There’s always something to do. Who does it, and what happens when something major happens, like a landslide?

In developments like these, a homeowners association typically handles repairs and upkeep for community amenities like paving, play equipment and landscaping. Those aren’t demanding tasks. But what do most homeowners know about geology? For the special hazards posed by geological forces, like erosion and landslides, there’s something better: a Geologic Hazard Abatement District or GHAD.

GHADs (pronounced like “gadzooks” without the zook) are peculiar entities, created under the Beverly Act of 1979, that are set up to handle the specialized job of dealing with geologic hazards for a specific set of landowners. Formally political divisions of the state independent of cities and counties, they’re exempt from bureaucratic headaches like reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or hassles with the county’s LAFCO agency (and its wretched website). They have elected Boards of Directors and can own land, impose taxes, issue bonds, exercise eminent domain and possess other superpowers. There are dozens of GHADs now, and Alameda and Contra Costa Counties are their epicenter.

What keeps GHADs from running amuck or shirking their job is their “constitution,” a detailed Plan of Control drawn up by a licensed engineering geologist that ensures the Board will act with a prudent level of care. The program of regular monitoring and maintenance is spelled out in an Engineer’s Report, prepared by a licensed geotechnical engineer. It’s a simple but powerful program that spares taxpayers the geological risk inherent in developing sites like Leona Quarry. Learn more from the California Association of GHADs.

The Leona Quarry GHAD was formed in 2005, and by now it has saved up several million dollars of landowners’ assessments for maintaining the defenses — the retaining walls, drainage facilities, native plants and so on — and for major incidents like slides, wildfires and washouts. In emergencies, the GHAD can act with funding in place, trusted experts (from ENGEO) in charge and minimal red tape.

As spelled out in the Engineer’s Report, the concrete drains are cleaned and inspected four times a year, and checked whenever rainfall exceeds an inch in 12 hours. The collection basin is mucked out whenever it fills to a certain level, and the vegetation inside is cut low whenever it grows above 5 feet high. When a wildfire swept over the north end of the upper slope last year, the GHAD sent its plant specialist out afterward to keep the native habitat in good shape, which in turn helps stabilize the slope.

A second GHAD, the Oakland Area GHAD, was established in 2006 for the small Siena Hill development off Keller Avenue. You’ve seen its rugged retaining walls with the fake-stone finish looming as you head east up Keller from Mountain Boulevard toward Sequoyah Community Church.

The builders and the city probably wouldn’t have developed this daunting location without a GHAD that enabled the homeowners to cover their own risk. And now the residents pay their annual fee of about $1500 and the City Council, meeting as the GHAD Board of Directors, spends literally three minutes a year passing a budget and keeping its hands clean of liability. Success for the developers is not certain, though, with fewer than half the lots filled after 12 years.

However, neither has failure been declared. What’s there so far looks really nice.

And from my point of view Siena Hill is a success because it exposes the Leona volcanics well, like this pretty boulder at the far end of Siena Drive.

Farther up is a fresh roadcut that displays the chaotic nature of this intriguing geologic unit, which represents a volcanic island arc of Jurassic age.

The whole thing consists of the distinctive greenish celadonite-bearing phase that I’ve found scattered all over the East Oakland hills. This is the first proper outcrop of it I’ve seen. Well worth a visit.

But enough of this stone cheesecake.

The Oakland Area GHAD is more than just a minor political curiosity; it was established with an eye toward folding in other similar developments as they come up. And it will hit the big time as the Oak Knoll development takes place over the next decade, because a whole bunch of land there, including the open space, the oak woodlands and the streambed of Rifle Range Creek, will come under the GHAD’s purview. The City Council may have to take a few more minutes from now on to manage that.

Work at Oak Knoll began in September. I am looking forward to the day when that land opens up to visitors.

The landslides of London Road

29 October 2018

I spent some time last week in a concerted effort to examine the site of the 1970 London Road/Wilshire Heights landslide. (It took me five years to return to this haunted scene!) The effort was fun, but I learned more at home than I did on site. Gather round the campfire and I’ll tell you the whole tale.

To start with, here’s the most visible sign of this notorious event: the missing side of Kitchener Court, a hard-to-get-to cul-de-sac just south of the LDS Temple parking lot. I took this shot through a chainlink fence as a lone crow cawed.

Deep in the night, the land on the left side, along with its houses, fell into the narrow headwater valley of Peralta Creek, where it pushed a row of recently built homes off their foundations down below on London Road. To orient ourselves, here’s a time series of road maps with London Road in the center. Click it to see its full 1300-pixel width.

Today the whole south end of London Road is gone, except for a tiny stub at the top of Maple Avenue. The north end, of later vintage, extends south from Maiden Lane. The 2018 map, from Google Maps with terrain visible, shows the topographic setting well.

Once upon a time London Road ran up a steep, secluded little wooded valley. It was platted in 1923 as part of the Wilshire Heights development and named for Jack London. It was built out by the late 1950s, after surges of homebuilding in the 1920s and 1940s. Meanwhile, East Bay MUD put water and sewer lines through, and Shell Oil emplaced a fuel pipeline down the valley to carry gasoline from its Martinez refinery to the Oakland Airport.

What could go wrong? A lot. Every steep headwater stream in the Oakland hills is prone to landslides. And this particular stream has carved its charming valley into the pulverized rock along the Hayward fault. Here’s what that shattered, highly weathered material — fault gouge — looks like where it’s exposed in the headscarp.

It was mid-February in 1962, on a dark and stormy night, when the combination of heavy rainfall and leakage from a broken water main caused the hillside just south of Maiden Lane to fail. Three homes were destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

Who knows how long the main had been leaking, or why. Slow landslides could have broken the main, or steady creep along the fault. Either would suffice, but probably both took part. On top of that, literally, was the added load on the hillslope from the new homes and their construction. No ordinances were in place at the time to ensure good construction practices on unstable slopes. And of course, for their landscaping, homeowners just added water. The land was probably in motion long before it finally slid.

Then came more construction in the 1960s: the Warren Freeway on one side, the LDS Temple complex on the other. People in the neighborhood said they noticed new ground movements during those years, but no cause-and-effect relationship can be confirmed this many years later. It is true, though, that when the Mormons sculpted the hilltop for their temple they disturbed an underground realm of water and soil. This photo shows groundwater coming up through the parking lot pavement, a phenomenon people described as the emergence of “hidden springs.”

But for the catastrophe that followed, the unregulated 1920s-era homebuilding on the bluffs of Kitchener Court was cause enough. During heavy rains in early January 1970, the whole east side of Kitchener Court began to collapse onto the south end of London Road. Within two weeks, some 40 houses were affected as 15 acres of land turned to hummocky ruin. The pipeline full of gasoline held, but Shell shut the whole thing down shortly thereafter. (In March 1969 it had been blown up, down in Redwood Canyon, engulfing the village of Canyon in a horrendous fire. Then this. And opposition continued to grow until the bad idea was safely dead.)

This land at the very end of Jordan Road is still iffy after almost 50 years.

There’s also the rock — you knew I’d get around to that. I don’t quite trust the geologic map in this area, but I can attest that serpentinite occurs here as it does in many places along California’s faults. These two specimens are good examples of our typical mixed serpentine rock and blueschist, and large boulders or outcrops of the same are visible in several places. There’s more on the west side of the temple. Serpentinite makes slide-prone ground, too, even when it’s not steep or waterlogged as this place was.

But on the whole, my poking around was frustrating because the land is so heavily overgrown and fenced off. Fortunately the US Geological Survey got funding for a lidar survey of the whole San Andreas fault system, including the Hayward fault, and the processed data — a digital elevation model or DEM, available from OpenTopography — is a fabulous resource for this exact area. After subtracting the vegetation and the structures from the data, the DEM becomes a grayscale image representing the bare ground, with the ghosts of streets and houses, here computer-illuminated from due northwest.

What’s handier, here’s the same with the Hayward fault superimposed. I usually have to do a lot of talking and armwaving to explain things, but not this time. Click in and wander around. The blue outline signifies a sag basin.

My final piece is this closeup of the slide area along with the lot lines and rights of way — more ghosts, still there after all these years.

There’s just one little house left on the east side of Kitchener Court, right up against the temple property. Incredible as it may seem, the adjoining lot, half fallen downhill with cliffs all around it, has a For Sale sign posted. Talk about a haunted place!

The Hayward earthquake: 1868-2018

15 October 2018

There’ll be lots of press this week about the anniversary of the “Great San Francisco Earthquake” — the original one, 150 years ago on 21 October 1868, caused by a big rip in the Hayward fault just before 8 in the morning. (Also the annual ShakeOut exercise, this year on 18 October at 10:18 am.) Behind the press stories there’s lots of sound info for you, and I’ll put a list of good links at the end of this post. Rather than write another standard thing about the earthquake, I’ll focus on what I’ve been studying lately, which is the problem of earthquake landslides.

Contemporary accounts of the 1868 quake tended to focus on homes wrecked and buildings ruined, but several geological manifestations were widely recorded: the ground cracked open from Oakland all the way to present-day Fremont, some of the cracks spewed muddy water, streams ran high afterward, and many new springs appeared near the crack.

Only in more distant places like the San Mateo Peninsula did people mention rockfalls and landslides — which tells me those were the most widespread forms of damage that day. Landslides were everywhere, even in places where buildings weren’t bothered. And though our buildings are even stronger today, the landscape is weaker than ever.

Landslides were everywhere in the East Bay hills in 1868 because that’s always what happens. No one made mention of them because they were unremarkable. The hills were empty countryside, a mix of spent rangeland and razed redwood groves. What matter was a landslide in that waste? But nowadays . . . when the next large Hayward fault earthquake comes, landslides will cause widespread and costly misery — in the high bedrock hills as well as the low gravel hills of the Fan and along the fault.

We don’t see the scars of the 1868 slides today because after a few decades, they fade out. Here’s a small slump in Sibley Regional Volcanic Preserve that I photographed in 2005, 2009 and 2017.

I think in another 12 years it will be pretty subtle.

The high hills owe their basic shape to earthquakes and landslides. Their sides are steep slopes, swept clean and straight as the Hayward fault raises the heights by about a millimeter a year, one earthquake at a time. So they’re always primed to slide.

USGS landslide researcher David Keefer estimated in a 1984 paper that earthquakes as small as magnitude 4 are large enough to cause rockfalls. A magnitude 6.8 event, the size of the 1868 quake, would cause up to 1000 rockfalls in the affected area.

And up to 1000 slumps like the one at Sibley.

And up to 1000 debris slides, what people usually call mudslides. The majority of these will start along roadcuts, which inherently destabilize hillslopes . . .

. . . and near hillside homes, which do the same.

The city will be overwhelmed. The roads will take months to clear, years to fix.

All these photos show rainfall landslides, or sites where one could happen. They’re the usual kind. They happen where the flow of water, both on the ground and below it, unbalances the slope and makes it fail. They especially tend to form on the sides and floors of valleys, where the slopes converge.

Earthquake landslides, though, tend to start on ridgetops and promontories, landforms that focus seismic energy toward their tops. They also aren’t confined to the wet season. Sites that aren’t prone to rainy-season landslides may instead be the preferred targets of earthquake slides. If we’re lucky during the next big quake, as we were in 1868, the ground will be dry. If we aren’t, and the ground is waterlogged, well, heaven help us because we’ll get both kinds of landslide at once.

This danger is built in with the tectonically active setting that makes Oakland so beautiful. We have to prevent what we can, and cope with what we can’t.

Here’s that list of Hayward fault resources. Actually, the whole list is on one page, from the U.S. Geological Survey:

earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/events/1868calif

In that list I want to single out “What to Expect in a Big Urban Earthquake,” a phone-friendly “geonarrative” aimed squarely at people who live in cities — that’s us.

The Dunsmuir-Chabot trail

1 October 2018

The most remote part of Oakland will be opened to public access fairly soon, when the East Bay Regional Parks District finally gets around to constructing a trail between Dunsmuir Ridge and Lake Chabot. I made my way into part of the route a few weeks back. It’s interesting and inviting territory, set above an untouched oak-filled stream valley with Fairmont Ridge beyond.

The land has divided ownership, with parcels belonging to the city, EBMUD and the East Bay Regional Parks District. They’re all public agencies, so the bureaucracy must have been difficult. Here’s the setting, as laid out in a 2009 EBRPD map.

The solid blue line is a trail in Anthony Chabot Regional Park that’s been closed for years. The dashed blue line is the proposed Dunsmuir Heights to Chabot Regional Trail.

This summer the EBRPD board was shown this map of the approximate route. Again, the solid line is an existing (deteriorated) roadway and the dashed part will be built from scratch. The photo at the top of this post is the view from the EBMUD water tank at top center. The part I’ll be showing is between there and the “P” mark at the city golf course.

A couple more maps to help you see what’s here. First is the bare land as shown in Google Maps terrain view.

The centerpiece of the trail’s route is the valley in the lower right quadrant. Note its depth and steepness. The permanent stream in that valley has no formal name, so I will hereby dub it Chabot Creek. And finally here’s the same area in the 1947 topographic map, which shows the old roads that will become the trail.

If you look at the upper part of Chabot Creek valley, you’ll see it turns sharply from southeast to southwest as you go downhill. On the Google map, though, the streamcourse is interrupted by a flat area. That’s landfill made of waste from the Cypress Viaduct, which collapsed in the 1989 earthquake. It’s sterile and weedy, but the view is nice.

At its edge is a curious structure, visible in Google Earth, that turns out to be a spillway, made for the event of a large rainstorm during a very wet winter. Presumably the landfill was capped with a layer of clay to stop any contaminants from leaching into Chabot Creek, and thus the site would fill with rainwater quickly and have a risk of spillover.

If you looked closely at the second map, you saw the intriguing pointers to an “old foundation” and a “1936 WPA rock chimney.” The chimney is a massive stone fireplace, suitable for a hunting lodge. But the building it once occupied is gone. Foundations around it show that it was a group facility of some kind. I’m hoping that local historians can say more about it in the comments.

A stone in the entryway is carved with the date 1935, so the map is slightly in error.

In any case, the stonework is indeed classic WPA masonry, of the same vintage, material and durability as the Woodminster Cascades in Joaquin Miller Park.

And speaking of stone, what are the rocks like around here, you ask. Here’s what’s mapped in the area.

“Jsv” is the Leona volcanics, “KJk” is the sedimentary Knoxville Formation, and the blue field is Franciscan melange, the same body of rock underlying Knowland Park. When I visited, I checked out a roadcut right where the Franciscan and Knoxville meet and found an assortment of rocks.

All of these are appropriate for the Franciscan, but the brown sandstone could just as easily be from the Knoxville. A return visit is in order during the upcoming wet season, when the ground is firmer. I hope to see more signs of the Franciscan “knockers” so well exposed in Knowland Park — and on the golf course, like this blueschist knocker cropping out in the rough.

The plans for the Dunsmuir Heights to Chabot Trail are supposed to come up for public comment this fall, with the work to be completed by 2021.