February rains inflicted $23 million in damage to Sonoma County roads
The February storms that swelled the Russian River to its highest level in more than two decades did $23 million in damage to Sonoma County roads, including more than 100 landslides and slipouts, leaving county crews and contractors with a Herculean repair job that will take months to complete.
The scale, severity and cost of the damage could rise, as assessments are ongoing. Some slides and slope failures remain unstable or are continuing to move, officials said.
“We have been hammered in west county,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said, asserting that her district sustained the most damage. “It’s been very stressful.”
In some cases, slides can’t be cleared from roads until the rain-soaked soil dries out because removing muddy earth could prompt renewed slides on steep hillsides, she said.
Six county roads remained closed and eight others were partially blocked, according to the county’s road conditions report on Friday. In late February, more than 50 roads were closed by the deluge.
Storm damage since two waves of rain in February includes 110 landslides and slipouts, said Daniel Virkstis, of the county’s Transportation and Public Works Department.
A landslide involves soil coming from a slope onto a road, while a slipout involves erosion of soil from beneath a road, threatening its integrity, he said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said the extensive damage isn’t surprising in the wake of the atmospheric river storms that left some roads submerged for days.
“It’s part of winter,” he said. “Rains come, cracks (in the pavement) let water in and there you go,” he said.
Santa Rosa received just over 17 inches of rain in February, the second-highest total for that month since 1903, the National Weather Service said. The wettest February was in 1998 with more than 19 inches.
Venado, in the hills west of Healdsburg, got nearly 46 inches of rain in February.
In a report to the Board of Supervisors this week, the Transportation and Public Works Department cited as the major incident a slide in far northwest Sonoma County that buried Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road under about 12,000 cubic yards of debris, which cascaded downhill into the Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River.
A route for emergency vehicles has been established but the rural road remains closed to the public.
Moscow Road is closed near the Casini Ranch Campground by a slipout that has destroyed the westbound lane and threatens to undermine the road. It is among the damaged sites that will require a technical assessment and repair designed by engineers.
A slide of a different type remains active on Westside Avenue near Forestville, which is open while a hillside’s shift prompted red-tagging of four homes, prohibiting occupancy.
County officials inspected the slope last month and determined that a nearly acre-sized area had moved about 18 inches, measured at the bottom of the slide. No soil crossed the road.
In addition to the slips and slides, repair crews are working on erosion damage to roads and culverts, while also responding to about 2,000 requests from residents to fill potholes.
“We are Pothole City all around the county,” Hopkins said.
The overall damage is substantial, but not overwhelming, Virkstis said.
“We are operating on all cylinders all the time,” he said. “We are addressing this as quickly as we can.”
He declined to give a timetable for completing the repairs, saying it would be a matter of months.
Repairs are generally prioritized according to the severity of damage, with consideration also given to damage that impacts emergency access and isolates residents when the road is the only way in and out of an area, Virkstis said.
Time is not on the county’s side, according to the department’s report, as officials have their eyes on potential slides and slope failures - and the weather.
“These concerns and needs remain in flux and may be exacerbated, since the impacted areas may experience further rains and much of the wet season remains,” the report said.
Supervisors on Tuesday granted the Transportation and Public Works Department’s request to continue a suspension of competitive bidding, enabling the county to speed contracts for road repair services, equipment and materials.
Residents have a right to be frustrated by the pace of repairs, Virkstis said, while noting that Sonoma County’s 1,368-mile road network is the largest in the Bay Area. It is also perennially rated in the worst condition among the nine-county region.
An underlying problem is many rural roads, especially in west county, are old farm roads that were simply paved without an engineered base, Virkstis noted. Those roads will require repeated resurfacing and patching until they are eventually rebuilt.
Coleman Valley Road heading uphill and west from Occidental is a recurring problem spot, where a slipout has reduced it to one lane. The road was repaired last fall, Hopkins said.
Thanks to a state disaster declaration, the state will cover 75% of the road repair costs, while the county pays the remaining 25%.
A federal disaster declaration would bring a 75% Federal Emergency Management Agency contribution, with 19% from the state and just 9% from the county, Virkstis said. But county officials have expressed doubts that such a declaration will be made.
California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, along with Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, sent a letter Thursday to President Donald Trump asking him to approve a flood disaster declaration for Sonoma and 27 other counties in which damages totaled $157 million.
The letter, signed by 22 other California members of Congress, including seven Republicans, also applies to Lake, Marin, Mendocino and Napa, among the other counties.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.