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Letting go of La Conchita

January 13, 2006

MUCH OF CALIFORNIA'S COAST from Ventura to Monterey, with waves crashing against craggy cliffs, seems designed to remind us that we are puny creatures who only pretend to have tamed nature. This is especially so in La Conchita, the funky hamlet where several of nature's most powerful and destructive forces converge. A year ago, 10 people died when at least 400,000 tons of soil and rock crashed down on the town from a cliff above. Ten years before that, an even bigger slide occurred, though residents were able to get out of the way.

Now the town is wondering when the cliff will be stabilized to prevent further disasters. Ventura County officials say they're not sure what to do, and after initially pledging to restore La Conchita, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't saying anything at all.

That's probably because no one wants to say the sad truth that ought to be acknowledged: It's time to let go of La Conchita. With about 160 homes, the town is too tiny to justify the extraordinary expense and uncertain success involved in holding the slope upright. Instead, federal and state governments should provide homeowners money to help them buy a house somewhere else.

The price for full-scale stabilization is estimated at up to $150 million -- close to $1 million a house. La Conchita is hardly New Orleans, whose economic and cultural significance extends far beyond its borders. La Conchita is a lovely little place that has meaning and importance to a small number of people.

Scientists don't know if there is a way to hold back the cliff. A false sense of safety would put lives in continued danger and open the county and state to budget-breaking lawsuits should the hillside fail again.

La Conchita's location is as dangerous as it is dramatic. Since that fatal landslide a year ago, studies have found that the area's future is even more geologically shaky than previously believed. It was the site of a huge slide 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, one of the largest ever in North America. That slide broke up rocks on the cliff, making it vulnerable to smaller slides to this day. A major earthquake fault bisects the mountain behind La Conchita, making the town prone to slides from quakes as well as rain. In addition, the cliff's soil is sandy marine sediment with a tendency to crumble.

Californians live at the whim of great forces -- earthquakes, ocean waves, wildfires. We are used to living (and rebuilding) on the edge of nature. But in La Conchita, it's time to admit that nature has won. As painful as the loss would be, there appears to be no reasonable way to keep this little town safe.

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