Residents who live on Southside Road will not be happy to learn from the county that the road will remain closed for the foreseeable future because of five recent landslides. The most recent slide uncovered wet dirt as evidence that water seeping from wastewater treatment ponds on top of the hill may be the cause, but no one knows for sure.
The first landslide occurred in mid-May and work began to rectify the situation June 8. Three more landslides occurred in the same general area on Southside Road between June and August. A fifth, partial slide occurred Aug. 17, according to the Resource Management Agency.
Don Chapin Company began working on the slides June 8. The original contract was not to exceed $397,458, to be taken from county contingencies. After work began, two more slides necessitated additional work and a second contract, bringing the total to $1,057,458.
How long the closure will last, no one knows. Not the San Benito County Board of Supervisors, not Resource Management Agency Director John Guertin, not even the civil engineer overseeing the work. No one knows yet how to fix the problem.
At the supervisors’ Aug. 21 regular meeting, the board discussed payment for the first contract to repair and stabilize the slide area and clear the road; they also considered the second contract.
This was before Guertin and civil engineer Gregory Bucknell told supervisors they had no idea what caused the slides. Water perhaps, but they weren’t sure. Crews are scheduled to keep working until a geotechnical consultant can be brought on to determine what is happening underground.
According to Guertin, even though engineers have been onsite throughout the project, along with the construction firm, they have not been able to figure out how to stop the slides. He said it could be a couple weeks before the geotech firm can start boring holes for core samples to help determine the cause of the slides.
Board Chairman Anthony Botelho asked Guertin if he knew how long it would take to come up with an answer. Guertin said it would be no sooner than mid-September. Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz asked if the county was just “throwing good money after bad money.”
“Not anymore,” Guertin responded with a nervous chuckle. “The soil is very unstable. There’s a lot of water in that hillside and whatever may be causing it to be in there, we haven’t determined. We haven’t even determined the water is causing it to slide. But it probably is.”
Guertin commented that while working under emergency conditions, the goal has been to open the road as soon as possible.
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer, whose district includes the slide area, insisted that Sunnyslope County Water District must come to “the room” to help determine what is happening. He also said the rainy season is fast approaching, which could cause the closure of Southside Road where it crosses over the creek near Tres Pinos.
“This has to be resolved soon,” he said.
Muenzer added that until it is determined what, if any, role the ponds are playing in the slides, the county should stop issuing building permits that would have to be hooked up to the Sunnyslope Wastewater Treatment plant. If this were to happen, it could affect potential plans for a Ridgemark retail project.
Botelho said there needs to be discussion about sealing the ponds or diverting the water to Hollister’s regional wastewater treatment facility.
“Originally we thought we could do this project without impacting any of the [Sunnyslope] water district’s current operating facilities,” Guertin responded, adding that this was no longer the case.
When Supervisor Mark Medina questioned the advisability of doing additional work before the root cause of the slides could be determined, civil engineer Bucknell said the contract they were discussing was only to pay for work already done.
“We are unable to respond to slide four,” he said, recommending the road remain closed, and adding, ominously, “I need to bring to your attention there’s actually a slide five developing in the last day or two at the top of the slope. We initiated an investigation for the first week of September.”
Resident Lynn Hildon said he owns the property “that’s getting hauled away.” He said when he bought the property in 1999 he was told that pond No. 5 had been closed because of a landslide, which was repaired in 1984. He said five years ago the water district began expanding the facility and that he challenged the move then, pointing out the new treatment facility being built in Hollister. He said the cost of the project was supposedly $118 million, and that some of the water would be recycled back to a Ridgemark golf course and some farms. He also said the district began using pond No. 5 again two years ago.
“It’s criminal,” Hildon continued. “They knew that pond was a problem and they started putting water into it again. I’ve lost a couple acres. It’s no question what the problem is. It’s Sunnyslope Water District. They have no way of getting rid of their affluent and they keep adding more houses.”
Tony LoBue, a former Hollister mayor and councilman who lives on Southside Road, recommended convincing Ridgemark to open the private road into the back of the development.
“After all, if it’s Ridgemark’s water that is causing the problem they should be able to help us by opening that south gate,” he said. The Sunnyslope facility treats water for the communities of Ridgemark, Quail Hollow, and Oak Creek.
Ridgemark resident Mel Tungate said he agreed with Supervisors Muenzer and Botelho about stopping new hookups to the water district. He said he surveyed the property with Hildon recently and found that the dirt road on the hill and below the ponds is already eroded and there is only about 15 feet of it left intact.
“If we have a hard rain like in 1998, you’re looking at a disaster,” he said. “I’m worried about safety for the people down below. Whether it’s [the water district’s] problem or not, if the hillside gives way it’s everybody’s problem.”
De La Cruz agreed there should not be any more new construction hookups to the water district. He also said it is more crucial to determine the cause of the slides rather than clear the road.
“We’re not trying to clear the road anymore,” Guertin said. “We’re not changing the plan by not approving this. All we’re doing is delaying payment to a contractor who has already provided services.”
The supervisors approved the resolution approving the initial contract that Don Chapin Co. had already completed and asked staff to schedule a special meeting to address the cause of the slides, and invite the water district and the Ridgemark Homeowners Association Board.
Rob Hillebrecht, associate engineer at Sunnyslope County Water District, told BenitoLink on Aug. 22 that the water treatment facility on the hill adjacent to Ridgemark was built in 2013 to treat waste water from Ridgemark, Quail Hollow and Oak Creek. He said water goes from the treatment facility to the ponds where it percolates into the ground. He added that it isn’t possible to divert the water to Hollister’s wastewater treatment facility because there are no pipes linking the two facilities.
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