Marin County officials issue local state of emergency issued due to Highway 37 flood damage

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Flooded Highway 37 is not expected to reopen to westbound traffic in Marin County until next Friday Fed. 22 at the earliest.

That word comes from North Bay State Senator Mike McGuire, after a lengthy meeting Friday night with local, state and federal officials. On Saturday, Marin County officials anounced a local state of emergency.

"Bottom line, our top priority is getting this damn highway open and unfortunately it's going to be a complicated fix," McGuire told KTVU. "I can assure you we are working together and we will get Highway 37 open as soon as possible."

The closed westbound lanes are between Atherton Avenue and Highway 101 in Novato. On Saturday, crews closed one eastbound lane as crews work to get the road back open. The one eastbound lane is expected to close periodically throughout the weekend. 

It is a 4 mile stretch, the final leg of a 21 mile connector linking Marin and Solano Counties. Heavy rain during this week's atmospheric river event breached a levee, and caused water to flow from the Novato Creek into a 600 acre pasture, and onto the traffic lanes. 

"Unfortunately it was ground hog day, and very painful memories," said McGuire, recalling a similar incident during January 2017.

During heavy storms that winter, a different levee failed and all four highway lanes were shut down for almost two weeks. 

It forced more than 40,000 vehicles a day to take other routes, jamming the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.  

Highway 37 improvements followed but it remains a highway planted in a flood plain.  

"It is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to sea level rise," declared McGuire, "and one of the most vulnerable highways in the entire state of California."

As they were two years ago, drivers are being detoured off the highway and routed on neighborhood streets to get to Highway 101 and beyond. 

"37 probably needs to be revamped, maybe raised somehow, but that would probably be a lot of money," said one driver, responding to the new crisis. 

The busy east-west connector has a bad reputation even in good weather.     

"It would be nice if there were more lanes on it. It can really get jammed up" reacted another driver. 
Friday night, construction crews arrived at the site of the levee break, setting up flood lights to get started on repairs. 

Trucks arrived with loads of boulders to fill the collapse and shore up the saturated soil. A road must be built to access the washed-out area, because the existing one is under water.

Once a new road is built, a different contractor will construct a temporary dam.That could be finished by Tuesday, then a massive pumping operation can begin, using 6 pumping stations.

Approximately 2,000 acre feet of water has flowed where it wasn't supposed to go. So far, only westbound lanes have been closed, but the arrival of heavy equipment required one eastbound lane be coned-off Friday night. 

"We haven't had a full closure yet, but we're watching the water, it's continuing to rise," said CalTrans spokesman Jeff Weiss, noting repairs involve many stakeholders, including Northern Pacific Railroad, which had freight-carrying tracks washed-out. 

Levees are maintained by private landowners. 

"It's not our levee, but we've got to deal with the infrastructure that's here," said Weiss, "and we're not blaming anyone. We're working together to get the road open." 

As late as Friday, the water levels were still rising, as fast as a foot every few hours. Rain was also falling intermittently over the area, and assuming the repairs stay on schedule, the final step will be inspecting the submerged road and repairing it if necessary. 

"We cannot say thank you enough to the commuters of the North Bay and to the commuters of the East bay," said Senator McGuire, "but we anticipate mind-numbing commutes for the next week."

McGuire notes long-term planning to improve and up-raise Highway 37 is being accomplished, but will take years and require billions of dollars.