Jason Walsh: Highway 37 flooding an omen of Greek-epic proportions

According to the legend of Atlantis, as told by Plato in about 360 BCE, a utopian city brimming with gold, silver and exotic wildlife was built upon a series of bay-side islets interwoven by wide moats and a great canal running through the city center.

Atlantis was clearly the place to see and be seen in the Hellenistic-era Mediterranean of 9,400 BCE – but, alas, the Atlanteans got a little too big for their togas and after a bit of wartime folly and some enslaving of vanquished foes, the gods threw a little climate-change action their way and Atlantis sunk into the sea, leaving nothing in its wake but an impassable muddy shoal.

Of course, that’s what happens when a population of wealthy, entitled elites builds up a swath of highly sought-after real estate on the banks of pristine oceanfront property only to be stymied when water levels rise and the development begins sinking back into the wetlands.

But enough about Highway 37.

Because that road’s back in action as of last week – smoothing about 40,000 weekday Sonoma-to-Marin commutes after nearly a month this winter of 40-minute detours around Novato’s Deer Island which, for the first time in decades, actually now is an island.

What puzzled most commuters wasn’t that a minor highway flooded during a big rain – rather, that it remained flooded for days on end during dry, sunny weather. This would partly be blamed on some levee breaches, which, while inconvenient, are at least repairable. But the stagnation was also down to the fact that Highway 37 is the Bay Area’s lowest-lying highway and it was built on marshland – the Novato portion of the road has actually sunk about two feet over the last couple of decades. Thoroughfares laid on quicksand can be a tricky business.

This swill-fated four-mile leg of the highway was finally reopened last Thursday after an $8 million emergency repair job in which 1,400-feet of asphalt was raised between 1 and 2 feet to keep it out of the drink – at least for now. It’s not a permanent solution to the Highway 37 problem, according to Caltrans officials. And, more alarmingly, it’s not even the most pressing Highway 37 problem.

If you think today’s 40-minute delay through Novato is an outrage, just wait until tomorrow’s delay if and when the stretch of Highway 37 from Sear’s Point to Solano County is finally reclaimed by the sea. Where’s the “minor detour” a few decades down the road when the anticipated San Pablo Bay sea-level-rise happens – Highway 121 through Napa? Highway 80 via the Richmond Bridge? They may as well offer ferry service from Mare Island to the Black Point boat docks – it’d be faster.

But, unlike the recent Atherton-area floods, the submersion of the rest of Highway 37 won’t be taking anyone by surprise.

On Feb. 22, the Sonoma City Council appointed Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti to be the city’s designated attendee at meetings of the State Route 37 Policy Committee – that’s a group of local leaders who meet under the auspices of the Congestion Management agencies of Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties to plot out a strategy to finance the reconstruction of Highway 37.

To put it simply, they’re brainstorming for ways to make the road climate-change proof.

The four-county State Route 37 Policy Committee, whose Sonoma County representatives include County Supervisors Susan Gorin and David Rabbitt, as well as Metropolitan Transportation Commission chair Jake Mackenzie of Rohnert Park, formed in December of 2015 and meets every other month to strategize funding solutions to what will likely be a substantial raising of around six miles of Highway 37 east of Sears Point.

The potential construction of a causeway across an environmentally sensitive marshland would be one of the biggest projects the North Bay has seen in decades – and paying for it is no simple budget adjustment.

Privatizing that stretch and funding it through toll revenue has been an idea floating around – an option initially met with skepticism last year when the Index-Tribune reported upon it. The recent commute headaches near Atherton, however, may have opened some ears toward such a proposal.

Whatever direction the committee takes – and it will have to do something – it’s encouraging the City of Sonoma will be keeping close tabs.

Agrimonti won’t have an official role at the SR-37 Policy Committee meetings, she’ll simply be an attendee on behalf of Sonoma and keep the Council and community up to date on the proposals being considered and decisions being made.

We look forward to detailed updates, as the future results of these committee meetings will have a substantial effect on Sonoma Valley access to the entire northeast portion of the state.

The good news is that efforts are underway prior to finding ourselves knee deep in the big muddy. Atlantis, according to legend, sunk over the course of a night and a day. We’ve got between 30 and 40 years, according to a sea-level-rise study conducted by Caltrans. It shouldn’t take philosophers of Plato’s magnitude to find and pay for a solution that ensures we can drive to Tahoe in three hours.

The Lost City of Sonoma is one legend we’d like to avoid.

Email Jason as jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.