Nina Mimnaugh at the Coulterville Visitor Center asked Rick Estrada with Caltrans District 10 what can be done to accurately inform tourists they can reach Coulterville and Greeley Hill in spite of closures on Highway 49 due to washouts created during a pineapple express storm in late March.
“We were landlocked here 48 hours after the storm,” Mimnaugh said Tuesday inside the visitor center. “Now people get here by mistake because they’re lost. There are detours around the damage on 132. People can get here from the Valley and go all the way up to Highway 120.”
Coulterville has about 200 residents and Greeley Hill is home to about 900, according to census data. A map posted in Coulterville on Wednesday morning showed closures on Highway 49 in Mariposa County, where work on storm damage is under way on sections south of the Merced River where it flows into Lake McClure.
There was a three-page handout with directions headlined “Alternate Routes to take due to Road Closures” to get to Modesto, Merced, Yosemite, Sonora, Mariposa, Groveland and Lake Don Pedro.
Estrada said he planned to get in touch with Caltrans personnel who oversee temporary signage. Mimnaugh said she believes inaccurate information is posted for motorists down on Highway 99, at the 120 junction and the 132 junction.
“Our town is dying and people are being told by road signs we are not accessible,” Mimnaugh said. “We have eight businesses open every day, in Coulterville and Greeley Hill.”
George Reed Construction, of Jamestown and Modesto, and Ford Construction, of Lodi, have been at work on Highways 49 and 132 since that tropical-moisture laden storm ended March 22.
At one of the worst locations Wednesday morning, about a mile north of the Tuolumne-Mariposa county line, multiple bulldozers, loaders, backhoes and diesel-powered dump trucks rattled, snarled and growled back and forth on a one-lane section of switchbacks left clinging to a rocky outcrop.
“The amount of rainfall up here was intense,” Jason Fuller, a foreman with George Reed Construction, hollered at the work site. “Up to 8 inches in that timeframe.”
Other rainfall estimates showed more than 4.8 inches in Groveland and below at Priest Reservoir on March 22, and Hetch Hetchy workers at Priest Reservoir measured 3.1 inches in a four-hour period from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. that day. John Klein, who lives on Priest Coulterville Road, said he emptied his 7-inch rain gauge at 9 a.m. and by 3 p.m. it was overflowing.
On Highway 49 between Moccasin and the Tuolumne County line there are nine places with washouts, undermined roadway and complete lanes ripped away by the storm, Estrada said. There are more washouts and weak spots on 49 south of the Merced River. And there’s a huge gash 51 vertical feet high and 60 feet wide in the creekbed where storm-swollen Piney Creek tore out Highway 132 upstream from where it empties into McClure.
Steve Walraven with Ford Construction said the cut is now widened to 250 feet at the roadway level. Piney Creek was carrying trees at the height of storm runoff March 22, trees blocked the culvert, backed-up flood waters rose 20 to 25 feet on the upstream side of the road, and ate through the berm the road rests on.
The berm is designed to support the road but it’s not designed to act as a dam. Flood debris including grass and sticks and tree limbs were visible Wednesday high in still-standing trees upstream from where Highway 132 used to cross over Piney Creek.
Because fixing Highway 149 and 132 are classified as emergency jobs, Caltrans does not yet have estimates for the construction work. Estrada said Wednesday the goal is to get Highways 49 and 132 open by mid-May. That timeline is weather-dependent.
Estrada said the Tuolumne County work sites on Highway 49 include a place where the road is undermined 12 vertical feet and 10 feet wide, a shoulder where 160 linear feet have eroded downslope, a plugged culvert that needs replacing, other spots with 90 linear feet and 150 feet of shoulder missing, more plugged culverts and the loss of an asphalt-lined drainage ditch.
That pineapple express storm in late March is the same one that prompted authorities to warn that Hetch Hetchy’s Moccasin Dam might collapse, tore up the state fish hatchery below on Moccasin Creek, and ripped up multiple county roads.
Hetch Hetchy damage estimates total $40 million so far, and there’s up to $10 million more in damage to fix on county roads and other infrastructure.
It’s also the same storm that resulted in the presumed deaths of John Honesto, 67, of Don Pedro, and for Carol Brown, 72, of Catheys Valley, who went missing during the intense downpours.
Honesto, a Tuolumne County resident and former Sonora High wrestling coach, was reported missing late March 22 and searchers found his unoccupied car was found washed more than a mile downstream from where Piney Creek blew out Highway 132 in Mariposa County.
Brown went missing earlier March 22 from her place south of Mariposa and about 55 miles south of Sonora. She was checking on horses due to heavy rain and flooding. Kristie Mitchell with the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said an unnamed seasonal creek, which normally runs 3 feet to 4 feet wide and 1 foot deep at most, swelled with storm runoff to 150 feet wide and 10 feet deep at flood stage.
Large-scale searches for Honesto and Brown were called off March 26. Mitchell said there was no new information available as of Wednesday.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.