In the beautiful coastline region along the famous Pacific Coast Highway between Ventura and Santa Barbara rests the small cottage town of La Conchita. With unobstructed ocean views, this community is only 820 feet wide on a narrow strip of land abutting a 590 feet high cliffside bluff. The bluff has a slope of approximately 35 degrees and consists of poorly cemented marine sediments. This is the perfect recipe for constant disaster from a geological perspective and the site of several major landslides that have devastated this community. Geologic evidence indicates that landslides, which are part of the larger Rincon Mountain slides, have been occurring at and near La Conchita for many thousands of years up to the present with reported landslides beginning as early as 1865. In both 1889 and 1909, the Southern Pacific Rail Line running along the coast was inundated. In the 1909 slide, a train was buried. Since that time, other slides have occurred, covering at times cultivated land, roadways, and the community itself. The two most devastating landslides occurred in 1995 and 2005.
From October 1994-March 1995, there was double the amount of seasonal rainfall for the area – in excess of 30 inches. The slide occurred on March 3, 1995, when surface cracks in the upper part of the slope opened on the hillside, and surface runoff was infiltrating into the subsurface. The heavy rains essentially saturated the slope causing a massive slide. On March 4, 1995, the hill behind La Conchita failed, moving tens of meters in minutes, and buried nine homes with no loss of life. The County of Ventura immediately declared the whole community a Geological Hazard Area, imposing building restrictions on the community to restrict new construction. On March 10, 1995, a subsequent debris flow from a canyon to the northwest damaged five additional houses in the northwestern part of La Conchita. In total, the slide measured approximately 390 feet wide, 1080 feet long and 98 feet deep. The deposit covered approximately 9.9 acres, and the volume was estimated to be approximately 1.7 million cubic yards of sediment. The devastation was immeasurable and the damage to homes, property and infrastructure was in the millions of dollars to repair. Litigation quickly arose following the 1995 slide with seventy-one homeowners suing the La Conchita Ranch Co. in Bateman v. La Conchita Ranch Co. The judge ruled that irrigation was not the major cause of the slide and that the ranch owners were not responsible.
Just ten years later, the second major landslide struck La Conchita. From December 27, 2004, through January 10, 2005, the County recorded near-record rainfall levels with the City of Ventura measuring almost 15 inches of rain in these 15 days. Similar to 1995, the hillside became over-saturated and began to crack at the same locations as the slide ten years prior. On January 10, 2005, the southeastern portion of the 1995 landslide deposit failed, resulting in shallow, rapid fluid flow, unlike the 1995 landslide. The volume of the landslide was estimated to be approximately 200,000 cubic meters with a surface of 1,150 feet long and 260–330 ft wide. The landslide destroyed 13 houses and severely damaged 23 others. There were 10 confirmed fatalities from the 2005 landslide.
The residents following these two devastating landslides formed the La Conchita Community Organization (LCC) to coordinate with government officials on how to best protect the community from future geotechnical movement. In March 2006, Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, allocated $667,000 for a scientific study to determine control measures to be taken to prevent future landslides. A second lawsuit was filed in 2008 by the family members of those who were killed or suffered significant property loss from the 2005 slide in Alvis v. County of Ventura. This time, the La Conchita Ranch Co. was found to be 50% liable in negligence due to the lack of adequate drainage for the orchards during the torrential rains. Ultimately, a settlement was ultimately reached – three years later – wherein the owners of an avocado ranch agreed to turn over all 700 acres of their land and other assets to settle the suit as part of the settlement. The plaintiffs also sued the County of Ventura for damages, claiming that a wall that the County built at the base of the landslide caused or contributed to the landslide. Ultimately, the County prevailed against the plaintiffs on all claims.
Current California Rains – Dec. 2022-Jan. 2023
With the recent torrential California rainstorms battering the Pacific Coast, the La Conchita area landslide locations are front and center again. Residents of La Conchita were evacuated in late December for fear of another future slide. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the La Conchita area is ripe for future landslide activity. The USGS report stated that “no part of the community can be considered safe from landslides” and that “there is no reason to believe that landslides will not continue to threaten or impact La Conchita.” The local authorities have declared the area a “geological hazard zone.” Public safety departments say they have no surefire way to predict if or when the hillside could fail because of the complex nature of the hazards. “We do everything in our power to try to determine potential risk up there,” said Patrick Maynard, director of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services. “But there’s really no way of knowing when something is going to happen.” It is estimated that one or more inches of rainfall per hour, and 15 inches within 30 days will trigger another catastrophic landslide. So authorities are keeping a constant eye on the slope conditions in light of the recent rainfall to hopefully take protective measures to minimize another catastrophic disaster.
So Why Do Residents Continue to Live in La Conchita?
According to long-time resident Mike Bell who purchased his home over 40 years ago, he calls La Conchita “the greatest place in the world to live.… it has beautiful ocean views and neighbors who check on one another in good times and bad.” In fact, most residents of La Conchita have lived here for decades and through both major landslides. They simply continue to rebuild and live in this community with the knowledge that any major rainstorm could lead to more destruction. It is a testament to the fortitude of these residents that they continue to live on the brink of disaster.