Two rainy seasons have passed since Los Angeles County supervisors agreed to underwrite a $4-million drainage system on Malibu's Big Rock Mesa, aiming to stop a massive landslide that had cracked driveways, split walls and spawned more than 200 lawsuits against the county.
A third rainy season is approaching. And Big Rock residents are wondering where their promised drainage system is.
They are beginning to worry that, without it, severe winter storms could prime the slide on which they live, causing more destruction in their neighborhood and below, on Pacific Coast Highway and Big Rock Beach.
For it is water that fuels the landslide.
Evolution of Landslide
The level of ground water in the mesa rose steadily in the late 1970s, making the hillside heavier and putting pressure on the clay soil at the slide's base. The clay got weaker and the mass it was supporting got stronger. So hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth began to move in September, 1983.
Now the county pumps water from wells in the ground, designed to make up for the use of septic tanks in the area. But the pumped water is released through narrow white pipes onto the streets of Big Rock.
"I've been concerned about where the water goes from the wells," said E.D. (Don) Michael, the geologist hired by the county to oversee the de-watering project.
Without an adequate drainage system, much of the water may simply seep back into the ground.
And rainwater from Big Rock Mountain flows downhill to the mesa. "The rain comes from well beyond the area," Michael said.
Without an adequate drainage system, some of that water, too, might infiltrate the soil.
To make matters worse, cracks from the earlier slide are scattered across the Big Rock landscape. Some are inches wide; others are several feet wide. Water dropping down the fissures penetrates directly to the slide area.
"We've been promised (the drainage system) now for two years, and nothing has happened," said Margaret Richards, president of Concerned Citizens for Water Control, a group of Big Rock residents who banded together after the slide to try to limit further damage.
"Here it is July again," Richards said. "That's why we're panicking. Because it's July. We've been lucky enough to have two dry winters, but we don't know how this one will be, and it takes months to put a drainage system in."
The money for the system, she noted, comes from the Big Rock homeowners and would be collected through an assessment district.
Arrangement Already Approved
This arrangement was approved by county supervisors in November, 1984, amid concern that the project could affect the homeowners' lawsuits against the county. Supervisors said that they feared the courts might view the drainage project as an admission that the county is liable for Big Rock damage.
(In the fall of 1985, a Superior Court judge decided that the county should pay $2 million to a Big Rock couple, ruling the county approved mesa development without adequate drainage or waste disposal and "must now bear the loss when damage occurs." The verdict, hailed by Big Rock residents as "a test case" is on appeal. The county contends that the homeowners are responsible because residents abandoned an earlier private water-pumping project. No decision is expected before late fall).
At the time of the 1984 vote, one supervisor called the drainage project "the biggest welfare program in the county." Another said the board's action was "taking from the poor and giving to the rich."
But, reassured by a deputy county counsel and prodded by Supervisor Deane Dana, whose 4th District includes Malibu, the board unanimously approved the allocation for the system.
These days many Big Rock residents say they suspect the delay in constructing the system may have something to do with the supervisors' initial misgivings about the effect on the county's legal position.
Waiting for Study
But Roslyn Robson, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Public Works, said that is not the case. The county was waiting for geologist Dennis Evans to finish studying the results of the de-watering program and the progress of the slide, Robson said.
A Van Nuys engineering firm had designed a drainage system, but "they wanted to make sure nothing was in conflict" with the study results, Robson said.
"It's important to go forward but it's important to go forward in a proper and organized manner," Robson said.
Evans' report, which became the center of a separate legal tangle, was obtained by the county in May. The drainage system design "is being modified," Robson said.
"We do not have a schedule and we do not have a cost figure," Robson said.
Richardson, of the residents' committee, called the explanation "an excuse." And Big Rock resident Kara Knack said a similar, one-paragraph update distributed to the neighbors at a recent meeting "is the sum total of their report to us over the past year. It's really just dead in the water, as far as I'm concerned."
Dated Drainage System