Flood waters submerge part of Highway 37 in Marin

Broken levees are the latest setback in the effort to reopen flooded Highway 37 in Marin County.

It closed both directions near the Highway 101 split during Thursday's storm, and may not reopen for two weeks.

"We're left with what we call "Lake 37", Caltrans' Will Hauke told KTVU, as he briefed elected officials at the water's edge.

Hauke is the maintenance manager for the North Bay region.

"We have eight pumping stations running right now, pumping more than 25,000 gallons a minute but a lot of water to move. We have to empty the entire 105 acre field," explained Hauke.

Highway 37 is a major east-west connector for Marin, Solano, Napa, and Sonoma Counties.

Most of the 21-mile stretch from I-80 to Highway 101 is fine. It's the sea-level portion on the Marin side where water flows over, closing the corridor three times in five weeks... 

"We have requested an emergency order to be able to raise the highway by 2 to 3 feet,"  declared State Senator Mike McGuire, who represents the North Coast district.

The roadbed has sunk at least that much in recent years. Add record rainfall and unusually high tides, flooding becomes likely.

But there are other factors this season: Novato Creek, which flows through the marshland, hasn't been dredged in a very long time, so it's shallow. 

And levees that were holding water away, have broken in recent storms. 

"We have a breach in two different areas of a private levee," explained McGuire, "and the creek full of silt, not as deep and with less water capacity with all the mud on the bottom."

What all this means for drivers: long detours off the highway and onto local streets to finally connect to 101.

"It's such a mess,and we have 40,000 cars that need to use this," exclaimed Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold, who took part in the walking tour.    

Arnold notes the closure is more than an inconvenience, it affects commerce.

More than half of Marin County's work force travels Highway 37, along with commercial  truck traffic. Even with CHP providing traffic control at peak times, it's a slow slog getting between Vallejo and Novato.  

"This has been a real surprise to people and I'm getting a lot of calls from constituents," admitted Arnold, "and whatever the drama is, it's our job to fix it, fast !"

The long term solution: an elevated causeway, costing a few billion dollars, and years down the road.

But dipping into Caltrans' emergency funds now would provide the quick, and cheaper, fix.

"Eight million is enough to get us out of this and at least raise us up out of the water level," Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt told KTVU.

Still, failing levees remain a wild card, with more wet weather forecast for next week.

"What we're pumping now, up to half of that water will circle around and come through the break again if it can't find its way out," worried Rabbitt.

February 24 is a tentative date to reopen, but it could come sooner if incoming storms are lighter than forecast.

A prolonged dry spell would be needed to raise and repave the roadway with emergency funding.

"Please try to be patient with us, we're doing the best we can," concluded Caltrrans' Hauke.