Mother Nature gave California a serious hammering this past winter, with stiff winds hurling near-record amounts of snow on the Sierra Nevada, emptying buckets of water on the lowlands, and throwing in a tsunami on the state’s northern coast. But through it all, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) worked tirelessly to keep the highways clear and traffic moving — to the public's appreciation.
"I know your crews were pushed to
Things got bad enough that in April Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., issued an emergency proclamation for 19 counties following storms that pummeled California. They included, Amador, Butte, Contra Costa, Del Norte, Humboldt, Madera, Mariposa, Mendocino, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Sierra, Stanislaus, Sutter, Trinity, Tuolumne, and Ventura counties.
Every Caltrans district received some pounding, especially during a two-week period of late winter bluster, but some got more than their fair share. For example, District 3 Director Jody Jones informed Sacramento headquarters in late March that “as of 6 a.m., we have had 709 inches of snowfall (on Interstate 80) at Donner Summit so far this year. The record is 780 inches set in 1951. That was the year a passenger train got stuck up there,” Jones wrote, recalling a stranded luxury train, the Southern Pacific's "City of San Francisco."
District 3’s (Marysville) famed Sierra Snowfighters endured serious pounding while clearing snow on the I-80 and U.S. Highway 50 corridors. More than a dozen storms contributed to a winter with near-record snowfall. Along I-80, 740 inches of snow were measured on the Donner Summit’s Castle Peak (elevation, 7,239) — the second highest ever recorded at that spot. Most of it fell between March 14 and 28. Average summit snowfall is 430 inches.
"We had 12 rotary plows working in tandem all night — going back and forth and they couldn't keep it cleared." District 3 Director Jody Jones
District 3 used more than 300 pieces of equipment, and 200 dedicated employees worked through blizzard conditions, plowing snow and performing avalanche control to maintain safe road conditions for traveling motorists. The severe winter storm, with high winds and snow accumulation of up to 18 inches in foothill communities, contributed to power outages that shut down government offices, schools and businesses in some areas for as long as three days.
Jones wrote to Sacramento headquarters on March 25: “We were able to open I-80 to vehicles (no trucks) about noon today. It had been closed all night due to zero visibility. We had 12 rotary plows working in tandem all night — going back and forth and they couldn't keep it cleared. The westbound lanes are above the eastbound lanes, and we are having to move the snow twice because there is nowhere to put it. We are clearing the westbound lanes by pushing/blowing the snow onto the eastbound lanes and then pushing/blowing it again over the side. The snow was falling so heavily that as soon as they finished, it was snowed over again.”
Caltrans crews would have done their best regardless of who was watching, but it’s always nice to receive a little positive feedback. For example, John A. Rice, general manager of Sierra at Tahoe Snowsports Resort, wrote to Bill Netto, a maintenance supervisor in South Lake Tahoe: “With the sheer volume of snow we experienced this past winter, I know your crews were pushed to their limits to keep the roads in good shape. From our perspective, they did an awesome job managing the snowfall and potential avalanche conditions on Highway 50.”
Mark Treiber, a permanent resident of South Lake Tahoe, added: “The Caltrans crews in our area have been darned near heroic. Awesome job! [It’s] difficult to understand how they do so much snow removal in such a short amount of time.”
Meanwhile, as District 3 was defending itself against heavy blows to mountain passes, its Structures Maintenance engineers on March 24 concluded that scouring had become critical on piers under the 10th Street Bridge, which crossed the storm-swollen Sacramento River. This was a critical link on State Route 20 (SR-20) between Yuba City and Marysville. And it was one more three-aspirin headache during a winter full of such challenges.
The North Region Office of Surveyors answered the call. Within hours, surveyors gathered up their equipment and went to work. They had to design and fabricate brackets to fasten laser targets to the bridge structure to aid the surveying process, establish control of the situation and set up equipment.
All work was done during a rain storm and 40 mph winds. Making matters worse, office support was unavailable because District 3’s headquarters had suffered a power outage. Despite challenges and within hours, the crew installed equipment and began monitoring the bridge for dangerous movement. Monitoring continued around the clock for 11 days with surveyors taking measurements every two hours. Due to their efforts, the bridge stayed open to the more than 40,000 vehicles that use it every day.
Meanwhile, District 10 (Stockton) contended with some brutal opposition of its own. Braving hostile weather, crews battled large boulders, damaged roads, flooding, avalanches, extreme snow, white-out conditions, potholes, rocks, mud, and debris slides. And that doesn’t include a nasty sinkhole on Highway 99 discovered during a stormy Friday afternoon.
The winter produced the second-highest recorded snowfall for SR-88 in the Caples Lake area. By the end of winter, the level stood at a tad over 555 inches, some 2.4 feet short of the record 584 inches recorded in the winter of 1982-83. Despite those numbers, from November 30 through March 27, crews kept Carson Pass open 97 percent of the time and Carson Spur clear 87 percent. They performed a controlled avalanche at 2 a.m. and led caravans of travelers through these operations, allowing them to reach their mountain homes safely.
Meanwhile, SR-140, an all-weather route into Yosemite National Park, had its own problems. Some 30 slides occurred during the height of the winter season in the Merced River Canyon. District 10’s crews fought during the day to clear the road and open traffic to one-way control.
However, work was forced to stop at nightfall. The California Highway Patrol closed the area after dark because steep, rain-soaked canyon walls sloughed off debris that made driving unsafe in the gloom. Caltrans brought in additional crews to remove the tons of debris that fell onto the road.
A crew was dispatched to remove numerous trees and limbs that fell or threatened to fall onto the road. Caltrans’ efficient use of resources ensured the heavily traveled route was ready to greet spring visitors heading to Yosemite’s magnificent waterfalls and spectacular spring flora.
The weather situation was just as dire in parts of southern and central California. District 8 (San Bernardino) faced its greatest winter challenges along SR-330 in the San Bernardino Mountains, running 14 miles north from Highland into Running Springs. On December 21, as the southland was experiencing one of the most devastating storms in more than 20 years, District 8 maintenance crews were conducting routine inspections along the serpentine SR-330.
Several locations were cause for concern. Inspections continued through the night until early morning when maintenance crews began to escort motorists through the route due to debris and slides – eventually closing the route because of dangerous conditions.
The next morning crews came upon a large slide on SR-330. They quickly mobilized separate contractors, and began repairs at three locations with major damage, as well as several other sites nearby. The cost for Mother Nature’s rampage: approximately $21 million.
District 8 and its contractors reopened the roadway in June to commuter traffic during peak hours. Contractors conducted all work behind barricades and posted flaggers at the three locations with major damage to ensure the safety of Caltrans and contract workers, and the commuting public.
District 5 (San Luis Obispo) was having one of its busiest seasons ever along the Big Sur coast, including several construction projects worth tens of millions of dollars, and preventive maintenance in response to the major Big Sur fire in summer 2008. Then on March 16, District 5 was hit with a new set of challenges along the scenic coastline. A 150-foot section of the southbound SR 1 at Rocky Creek collapsed, shutting down the entire roadway between Carmel and Big Sur.
Crews worked to stabilize the area, detour traffic and secure the area to ensure public safety. A contractor hired within a week of the damage began a $2.5 million emergency fix. The road is now open to controlled traffic, but a permanent repair will likely take a year or more and require a new 700-foot roadbed on either side of the collapse.
A week later, a slide south of Big Sur at Limekiln Creek dumped tons of rock and mud on the roadway, closing Highway 1 for a few days and temporarily isolating the community. When it was cleared on March 27, another slide struck at Alder Creek, and the highway there was closed until June 9, opening in time for the summer tourist season.
Through it all, Caltrans District 5 maintenance crews, engineers, planners, traffic managers and information officers worked long hours to manage the closure, respond to traveler/resident issues and design temporary and permanent repairs. All three road sections are now open thanks to the district’s hard work.
In perhaps the oddest winter event of all, District 1 (Eureka) sparred not merely with rain and snow, but with a rare tsunami, resulting from a spring earthquake in Japan. The tsunami, or “harbor wave” in Japanese, also did significant damage in Santa Cruz to piers and small craft.
District 1 (Eureka) has participated since 2008 in the Emergency Alert System, which attempted to prepare the area for a tsunami. The practice exercise scheduled for March 23 was trumped and turned real on March 11, and crews in Del Norte County assisted with tsunami-related road closures in addition to responding to several slip outs and erosion issues along U.S. Highway 101. Ironically, the District learned enough during the emergency response to cancel the planned exercise for later that month.
In addition to winter weather issues listed above, there were less dramatic, but still significant problems.
In Humboldt County, Highway 101 north of Garberville was closed for almost five days due to a massive mudslide that covered all four lanes of the highway. In the Fresno area, District 6 dealt with rockslides and local flooding that closed SRs 41, 168, 178 and 198.
Also in Orange County, District 12 had a wet and busy winter. A succession of winter storms hammered Orange County and kept District 12 Maintenance crews scurrying for much of the season – with flooding on SR-1 in Huntington Beach, and stretches of southbound I-405.
In summary, despite the worst punches winter could throw, Caltrans weathered the storm and kept travelers and goods moving throughout the state.
Caltrans District Websites