Treacherous conditions created in the midst of a rainy winter have closed a one-mile stretch of roadway along Hawver Road since the fall.
A ride down the restricted passageway from Victory Lane to Jesus Maria Road, inside the heart of the Butte Fire burn area, shows why.
Sediment erodes slowly off the moist hillsides like a landslide just waiting to happen. Culverts seemingly clog up in an instance and overflow into the roadway. Water carves so deeply into the downhill roadside channels, it reaches bedrock.
The North Fork Calaveras River roars at the bottom just before the intersection of Jesus Maria Road. Even during a typical rain event it takes four or five days to flow itself out. Still, the road remains closed because travellers could get stuck at the bottom if a mudslide occurs.
It’s the worst road in Calaveras County, Scott Anderson, Calaveras County road superintendent said. Conditions are so bad they won’t be able to reopen the road until spring or summer.
“We’re afraid somebody will come down not knowing the river has come up and a mudslide occurs behind them,” Anderson said. “Then they’ll be stranded.”
It wasn’t always this bad. Anderson said the river would flow through from time to time during previous winters but even then they’d only have to close the road for 48-72 hours at the most.
We’ve been able to maintain the road in the riverbank since the 1960s and 1970s,” Anderson said of the bottom area that has six 48-inch pipes encased in concrete to divert the North Fork Calaveras River.
The area has a 20 percent slope that now gets five-to-10 times more water during a rainy event than it would have before the Butte Fire. Numerous brown, earthy veins now visible along the green hillside adjacent to the road represent the lack of absorption that occurs
Many times the inflow is too difficult for the culverts to handle. In other instances, the water cuts deep enough into the hills it frees brush and roots, Anderson said. The roots then travel downstream and clog the channel. At that point, the county has to unclog the plug.
Anderson said they’re planning on installing six new pipes after it dries up along the slope down to the river.
“I’ll be dealing with this road for the rest of my career,” said Anderson who estimated he had about 10-years left. “It’s going to be a constant storm-by-storm pain.”
Nobody lives within the closed stretch of highway but it is a commonly used road for those looking to get from Mountain Ranch to Jackson. While it remains closed, those travelling north have to loop around. Anderson said the detour adds 20 minutes to the drive.
Contact Calaveras County reporter Jason Cowan at email@example.com or (209) 588-4531. Follow him on Twitter at @jcowan1031.