EUREKA — The last time I was here they were killing zoo bears. Ten years later, I can still see the hurt, dazed look of the city bureaucrat who had destroyed two old black bears in order to build a new bear grotto. He couldn't understand why everyone was so mad.
"There must be something about bears," he kept muttering, "something about bears."
This week, I met a state bureaucrat named Gene Wahl who, as the new director of Caltrans' Division One, must stop a river from knocking out the north coast's only interstate freeway. Something in Wahl's eyes, a flicker of befuddlement, reminded me of the unfortunate bear-killer. Fiddling with rivers, Wahl has discovered, can be dangerous.
"I guess," he acknowledged, "it's sort of a sensitive thing to do."
The river is the Mad River, which begins as snow runoff in the Coast Ranges and rolls west about 75 miles to the Pacific. In the past two decades, the Mad has taken an unexpected turn, running parallel to the beach before finally hooking into the ocean. It has extended itself two miles so far, each day edging a little farther up the coast.
No one knows why. Some people believe the destruction of an upriver dam is to blame. Others suspect earthquakes, or drought. One scientist calculates that the river is determined to create a new bay 20 miles north. Others theorize it has rediscovered an ancient route to the sea. What Gene Wahl knows is that, left unchecked, the river will breach U.S. 101 within a matter of weeks, or even days.
"It just shouldn't be doing this," he complained. "It's not natural. It's \o7 weird.\f7 "
Wahl doesn't look the type to tangle with a river. He's a sweet, soft-spoken man of 56, a Caltrans lifer who decorates his desk with little models of snowplows. Still, he didn't put in 36 years to finally land a division of his own and then watch some river undercut his principal four-lane highway.
The solution seemed simple at first. A bit of dredging or a wall of rock upstream could redirect the river back to its old mouth. People and nature slug it out routinely around here. The forests are pocked by timber harvests. Rock jetties jut into the ocean. Smoke rises from the pulp mills. Even the Mad River passes through a mountain dam. What harm could there be in one more manipulation?
Well . . .
Homeowners above the new leg of river told Wahl to leave it alone; they like the view. The county raised concerns about lawsuits. The feds warned Wahl about tampering with wildlife and willows. Fish would have to be counted, the plant life surveyed. In all, Wahl dealt with 17 agencies in one month. It got confusing.
"I want to do the right thing," he said, "but nobody can tell me just what the right thing is."
The river, meanwhile, kept nibbling toward the highway, moving 600 feet in a single weekend. Two weeks ago, with only 100 feet to go, Wahl filed an emergency application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to drop a rock barrier down the highway embankment. This would deflect the river from the highway, but otherwise allow it to roam free. The fix is a temporary one, and it could cost millions. But everybody seems happy with this more environmentally sensitive approach, and it might even work.
Now it's tempting, I know, to pull for the river as it creeps silently, mischievously toward the highway, but then we don't drive the U.S. 101, do we?
Environmental sensitivity can reek of situational ethics. In Los Angeles, we've paved rivers. In California's redwood forests, roadways once were carved through tree trunks. Even the Merced River is sandbagged to accommodate Yosemite tour buses. Ten years ago, the Eureka city bureaucrat who sinned by executing the zoo's two black bears could only observe that hunters kill hundreds of the same animals each fall in the Northern California woods. Today, Wahl muses about farmers who, in a less complicated time, used tractors to make the Mad River go where they wanted.
"It would be so easy," he said, almost wistfully.
For now, the bigwigs of Caltrans seem pleased with themselves, playing the unfamiliar role of environmental good guy. But what if the barrier doesn't work? It's not an idle question: No one has ever attempted to beat back a freeway-eating river before.
Well, I hate to tell you this, Gene. If the river wins, you'll be bunking with a bear-killer in bureaucrat hell. No one will remember the romance of a free-running river. You'll go down as the man who made driving miserable for 12,000 motorists a day, the numskull who stacked up cars and trucks from here to Oregon.
You see, if there's one thing we environmentally sensitive Californians hate more than someone tampering with Mother Nature, it's a traffic jam.