Residents Balk at City Plans for Canet Road Walk-Bridge

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

December 4, 2023

Canet Road dips low as it crosses Chorro Creek. 

A rural Morro Bay neighborhood is in a quandary as the City plans to remove a footbridge over Chorro Creek that they say they need during the winter when high creek flows make a road bridge impassable to be able to get home.

And with this coming winter anticipated to be another wet one, due to a predicted El Niño weather pattern, this winter could be a real challenge.

Residents living on the end stretch of Canet Road off Hwy 1 east of town as it begins climbing the lower flank of Hollister Peak, are prepared to wage a pitched battle with the City over what they call the “walk-bridge” that’s been there so long, its origin story is a little murky

The Setting

The roadway on Canet dips steeply down at the creek crossing, turning into a 1-lane, narrow roadway after it crosses the normally calm and tranquil water. 

Homes are on short driveways off the main thoroughfare, which passes by a tiny historic cemetery where many of the former residents are buried.

The walk-bridge runs adjacent to the roadway, but crosses the creek about 15-feet higher than dip in the road bridge.

That means when rising water crests over the top of the road bridge, the walk-bridge is the only safe way across Chorro Creek. They’ve used it for longer than anyone can recall.

“Many years ago,” reads a post on a special website the residents put up entitled “Save the Walk Bridge” (see: https://savethewalkbridge.com), “we are still trying to find out how many years, a walk-bridge was constructed over Chorro Creek.” 

Chorro Creek starts far back in Chorro Valley on Camp San Luis lands and meanders mostly through the southern side of Chorro Valley fed by a series of smaller creeks flowing mostly from the mountains on the opposite side of the valley — San Bernardo Creek, as well as San Luisito and Dairy Creek, among others. 

A Long History

The website, put up by Dr. Guy and LaRonda Chirman, goes on to explain that the creek’s history goes back to the days when California was owned by Mexico and Chorro Valley was carved up into huge ranchos. It’s colorful.

“‘Chorro,’” they wrote, “is a word that Mexican people used as a synonym for ‘diarrhea.’ Whether the locals know it or not, they are living on a tributary that, at one time, sent raw sewage to the Pacific Ocean. A hundred years ago, that’s the way it was done.”

Raw sewage no longer flows down the creek but it is fed by treated wastewater from a sewage treatment plant upstream behind Cuesta College and owned by the California Men’s Colony State Prison. That discharge is what keeps Chorro Creek flowing year-round.

“We’ve come a long way,” the post continued, “since Jose Canet settled the area more than a century ago. A sewage treatment plant was erected up stream and the stream began to come back to life. Residents say there were lots of steelhead fish and many turtles amongst other wildlife.”

Chorro Creek is one of two main sources of freshwater to the Morro Bay National Estuary.

Walk-Bridge a Solution

“So that’s the setting,” the post continued, “the cars used to travel over the creek bed. When traveling over the creek bed became impassable, everyone would use the walk-bridge. As best we can tell, the walk-bridge has been there since the 1970s.”

“Driving through polluted water was one thing,” they continued, “but walking through it was another. So a walk-bridge was erected over a water pipe supplying the City of Morro Bay. This was primarily done to allow City officials access to their wells even when the creek made driving over impossible to do.”

Old Infrastructure

The City of Morro Bay has long had water wells scattered along Canet Road, as well as Chorro Creek Road, just a short distance west of Canet. 

For decades the Chorro Valley wells supplied the majority of Morro Bay’s drinking water, until an issue arose over the City’s prescriptive water rights to the wells. 

In essence, the City was prohibited from pumping the wells within a certain distance of the creek, whenever Chorro Creek’s flow drops below 1.4-cubic feet per second. 

With the arrival of State Water in the mid-1990s, the City stopped pumping nearly all of those Chorro Valley wells. Now, over 25-years later, the wells out there are no longer in use and aren’t likely to be put back into use, now that the City is working on recycling its wastewater from its new treatment plant.

What About the Cars?

Next came a proper vehicle crossing. “At some point,” the post said, “the County realized that having cars driving through Chorro Creek was not a good idea.”

They guess that the Coastal Commission may have intervened as that State agency has jurisdiction over any waterway that empties into the ocean. “Who knows what the impetus was.”

The County did try and fix the situation. “In 2001, a new concrete vehicular bridge was completed that ran parallel to the walk-bridge,” the post said. “Now cars could drive over the creek rather than through it, but when the weather turned nasty, the vehicular bridge became impassable forcing people to park their cars and use the walk-bridge.

“So, for nearly 50 years, the residents [and City officials] used the walk-bridge when the vehicular bridge became impassable. This was standard operating procedure until recently.”

They admit the high water usually drops fairly quickly, in 5-10 hours or so, once the rains stop. However, they said there have been storms when the road bridge is impassible for several days. “This is why the walk-bridge became so vitally important.”

Bridge Design Faulty

The residents of Canet Road feel the County blew it with the road bridge, starting with its design.

“The engineers who designed the vehicular bridge did so with faulty weather data,” the residents’ post claims, “which is why the vehicular bridge is so much lower than the walk bridge.

“They designed the vehicular bridge to traverse Chorro Creek at a much lower elevation because they mistakenly believed the bridge would only become impassable once every 70 years. Boy were they wrong!”

The reality is that the creek overflows the road bridge three or four times a year forcing residents to use the walk-bridge if they want to get home. But even that they said is dangerous.

“The vehicular bridge is far too low,” the post said, “which creates a chronic flooding problem every year and danger for anyone attempting to drive their car across the bridge.”

What Should Have Been Done

They get to the root of their boggle. “If constructed properly,” they said, “the vehicle bridge would have been at the same height as the current walk-bridge, which is 10-15-feet higher, and sporting two lanes with a pedestrian walkway.”

This 1-lane bridge is obviously substandard, but this is a quiet country lane, not an in-town collector street, heavy with traffic. Nevertheless, they wish it had been built correctly.

“Instead,” the post said, “the vehicular bridge only has one lane and no space for pedestrians to safely traverse the bridge, even during good weather. Presently, there is a high level of danger for anyone who walks over the vehicular bridge regardless of the weather, especially at night.

“We dare City officials to take a walk with us at night over the vehicular bridge to see for themselves the extraordinary danger it poses.”

Walk-Bridge a Mess

An Estero Bay News reporter drove out to the site on Canet Road to take photos and see for himself this rather odd situation. That walk-bridge, which the City boarded up and posted warning signs, is in rough shape. The residents blame the City.

“When people began falling through the bridge because the planks were rotted so badly,” the post said, “Morro Bay City officials decided to just board up the bridge until they could figure out a game plan.”

Indeed, while the deck boards on the far side of the walk-bridge don’t look like they are in too bad of shape, the other side is badly rotted with missing boards that the residents said, the City removed.

 The welded steel water pipe that runs under the walk-bridge, spanning from one concrete abutment to the other, is seen with the missing deck boards. 

There’s also a large steel framework on each side that support the walk-bridge’s cable spans, which hold up the deck. It’s a classic bridge design and one that has been used on such iconic structures as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Large wooden beams that hold the deck planks, and are connected to the suspension cables are rotted too, as termites have apparently eaten their fill. But having the steel water pipe underneath, no doubt aids greatly in supporting the walk-bridge.

Given its condition, it’s pure luck that no one’s fallen through. That might be very bad.

“We are darn lucky that someone did not fall through the center of the bridge,” the post said, “because the fall would have seriously injured or even killed the unfortunate victim.”

City Wants to Demolish

Having no use for the walk-bridge, the City wants to tear it down. One of the residents sent a let to the City asking for a meeting and they said the Public Works Director informed them the City was tearing it down, and soon.

“With nearly 50-years of use by the residents and the general public,” they said, “the City of Morro Bay unilaterally decided to destroy the walk-bridge without a hearing or public feedback of any kind.”

City Plans

The Estero Bay News asked Public Works Director Greg Kwolek about this situation and he appears to be resolved to tear it down.

“The City has already restricted access due to the condition of the decking,” he said. They have no plans to remove the wells, which were drilled on private property through an easement, nor the piping. 

Normally whenever one does work in or around a creek, it triggers a slew of permitting requirements on both the State and Federal levels, but Kwolek said that isn’t necessary. 

“That would not be needed,” he said. “We are not altering the creek.”

As for the road bridge, Kwolek said it wasn’t their issue to fix. “It’s not the City’s road/vehicular bridge,” he said. “We don’t maintain them.”

Removing the walk-bridge would mean the City too would be prevented from accessing its wells when the creek runs too high, but the wells aren’t being used and haven’t been used much at all for at least the past 7 years.

County Responds

EBN queried the County about the road bridge on Canet Road and Public Works spokeswoman Shelly Cone tracked down the answers.

“The Canet [vehicle] Bridge,” she said, “is within the County maintained right of way and the County is responsible for in-kind maintenance.”

The County has been amassing lists of bridges and roads that need repair and in some cases replacement, but apparently Canet Road isn’t one of them.

“The short answer is ‘No,’” Cone said. “Though it’s county-maintained, Canet Bridge is subject to FHWA/Caltrans inspection and condition assessments. 

“It was replaced in 2000 and in February of this year, it was inspected by the State and rated in ‘Good’ [on a good, fair, poor scale] condition.”

The road bridge, despite its shortcomings, apparently isn’t a County priority. “It received a sufficiency rating of 91.5 out of 100,” Cone said. “The Board of Supervisors has adopted a ‘zero deficient bridges’ policy for prioritizing bridge replacements and with that rating, this bridge is not considered deficient or in need of replacement. Properly maintained, the bridge may not need replacing for 2-plus generations.”

EBN asked if the County has any interest in the walk-bridge, which Dr. Guy Chirman said may date back at least 90 years (the City rebuilt it in the 1970s) and has been used by people out there for decades? The County claims poverty.

“In general,” Cone said, “Public Works receives limited funding to maintain its existing facilities [roads/bridges], and meet regulatory mandates. This equates to about $4 for every $5 needed to maintain facilities to current conditions. 

“Expansion of existing facilities or implementation of new ones are almost entirely funded through private development or regional transportation funds and are only possible when it’s for the benefit of the general traveling public.”

What’s Next?

Reached by phone, Dr. Chirman, explained that as a physician, he needs to be able to get out to go to work and there are several elderly residents that live back in the half dozen or so homes that lie on the other side of the creek.

“There’s always been a walk-bridge there,” he said. “Tradition is that you park on the other side of the creek and use the walk-bridge” when the creek flow is too dangerous to cross.

He added that the City rebuilt the bridge when it put the wells in but, “The City of Morro Bay has never done any maintenance on that bridge,” he said. “So obviously, it’s deteriorated.”

His old friend, the late John Linhares, who worked his entire career for the City, told him that he built that walk-bridge when he was with the City. And it was a neighbor, “who got the ball rolling” with the City when he asked them to maintain it. 

“Two years ago,” Dr. Chirman said, “the City pulled the wood off [the missing deck boards]. That’s why it looks so terrible.”

He feels the City can’t just remove something that that’s been there for nearly a century. They may have no use for it, but the people who live there and depend on it, sure do.

“I told them you can’t just take it down,” he said. “It’s well-established. Elderly people live back here.”

He added that they will hire an attorney if needed and are planning to research the history of the bridge, which should have been documented when the water well easement was agreed to and filed with the County.

Meanwhile, they will try and make the City Council aware of the situation. “We’ve all [the affected residents] sent letters to the City, telling them that we need that bridge.”

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