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21 Mar 2019

Flood Follow-Up: What Are Local Governments Doing to Shore Up Infrastructure Affected by the Valentine’s Day flood?

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Water rushes down the wash in Indian Wells during the early portion of the Valentine’s Day flood. Water rushes down the wash in Indian Wells during the early portion of the Valentine’s Day flood. Jeffrey Norman

The flood the Coachella Valley experienced on Valentine’s Day will not soon be forgotten—and the scars it left will be visible for a long time.

The severity of the event was framed for us by the facts presented by Marcus Fuller, the assistant city manager and city engineer for Palm Springs, in an email sent after we requested an interview. On that day:

• The Palm Springs Airport received 3.69 inches of rain—“almost all the rainfall we receive normally in an entire year, (which) was reported as the third-highest volume of single-day rainfall in our (recorded) history.”

• “Riverside County Flood Control reports that rainfall totals in the Mount San Jacinto area (Idyllwild) reached over 9 inches, and (it) was considered a ‘100-year event.’”

• “The storm was also warm, and there was no snowfall on Mount San Jacinto. The rainfall melted the prior snow accumulations, generating more runoff into the rivers and the desert floor.”

The result was traffic mayhem. For about 24 hours, the only way to get between Palm Springs and the freeway was via Ramon Road, which led to massive traffic jams and delays.

As the waters cascaded in an easterly direction, Cathedral City was next to sustain infrastructure damage. Cathedral Canyon Drive was closed for more than a month—although things could have been much worse.

“As a point of fact, we actually did pretty well during the storm overall,” said John Corella, Cathedral City’s director of engineering/public works. “When the storm happened, our engineers went out and identified four or five locations where we were having significant stormwater challenges.”

Further east in Palm Desert, Cook Street was closed for a couple of days at the wash. The city of Indian Wells had to shut down a stretch of Fred Waring Drive, and in Indio, Avenue 44 remained closed at the wash as of this writing.

Despite the grumblings by residents and tourists alike about impassable roads and lengthy traffic disruptions, Katie Evans, the director of communications and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District, said things went … great?

“I would point out that, from the CVWD perspective, the rain event on Feb. 14 provided a great example of our system working exactly as we want it to,” she proclaimed.

I asked her to elaborate.

“That storm was a pretty significant weather event,” Evans said, “and the truth is that our system is designed to funnel all the water falling or running off the surrounding mountains into our Whitewater Wash storm channel, and then convey it down to the Salton Sea, and that is exactly what happened.

“Because we live in this area that has very steep mountains all around us, flash flooding is a major concern. The Whitewater Wash storm channel is the safest place for the water to be for the protection of all our valley residents—because, when it’s in that channel, it’s not flooding homes and businesses.

“CVWD is the regional stormwater provider. The cities are the local municipal stormwater providers, and they have to build their own systems that feed into the channel, so there’s a need for cooperation here. The cities build their own retention basins and smaller channels all that send their water into the Whitewater regional channel system, which CVWD maintains. The wash was a naturally occurring route (for stormwater) that the CVWD improved and built upon in the 1970s, but the fact is that we do have some trouble caused by (projects) that were built in the channel territory, such as golf courses and roads. There are agreements that allow one to do that—to build a road in the channel if you want to—but it’s a channel, and its primary purpose is to convey storm water.”

And therein lies the problem: Many of the important roadways in the valley, by necessity, cross the wash. So what can be done to mitigate the road closures and damage that take place when these types of floods occur—and where will the money come from to fund any such projects?

According to local government officials, some projects are already in the pipeline.

“We’ve sent four locations in to Caltrans in our request for emergency relief funds,” said Corella, from Cathedral City. “One is the Cathedral Canyon low-water crossing. We lost our two northbound lanes to the flood flow that came through the wash channel. We are currently restoring that to two lanes (one northbound, one southbound), and we are petitioning the state for funds to restore it to four lanes again, which would cost about $1.2 million—but we’re trying to work with them to explain that we already have a bridge project that’s been designed. All the required property has been acquired. … We have a shovel-ready project that will cost $20 million, and we’re on the Caltrans potential-projects-to-fund list in their next funding cycle. So we’ve explained that we’d rather not restore the four lanes in the low-water crossing. … We’d like them to please fund the bridge project.”

In Palm Springs, Fuller wrote that the city has been getting federal help for infrastructure improvements.

“The city has aggressively pursued federal funding through what was formerly called the Highway Bridge Program to replace, widen (and) retrofit/rehabilitate its existing bridges, and we currently have six different federally funded bridge projects underway,” he said.

Some $150 million in federal funding is committed to six projects, which include replacing the two-lane bridge over the railroad tracks on Indian Canyon Drive with a new six-lane bridge; a new raised roadway and bridge/culvert across South Palm Canyon Drive at Bogert Trail; widening the Ramon Road bridge over the Whitewater Wash from four lanes to six; and a new half-mile, four-lane bridge on Vista Chino over the wash.

Unfortunately, not all needed projects have been approved. Fuller said that the state—using federal funds—did OK a 2015 request for a new, two-mile bridge on Indian Canyon Drive over the entire 100-year flood plain of the Whitewater Wash. But …

“The state accepted our application but did not approve programming any funding, as the total amount of the project nearly represents the total funding that the state receives from the federal government for the total (Highway Bridge Program) fund in any single year.

“Then, on Oct. 1, 2016, the state stopped accepting applications. … Thus we are prevented from submitting a request for funding a Gene Autry Trail bridge, which would also have an estimated cost of $250 million.”

What does that mean for these two vital arteries in and out of Palm Springs? “Given the costs of these two long bridges, we are unable to proceed unless we find alternative funding sources,” Fuller wrote.

However, there is some good news: The CVWD just announced it is receiving a $51 million loan from the Environmental Protection Agency to fund area improvements.

“The CVWD has a big, long-term capital-improvement plan for our regional stormwater system,” Evans said. “… System improvements are needed, for example, in north Indio, where there are areas that need flood protection and don’t have it now. Also, the Avenue 54 stormwater channel running to the Thermal Drop Structure has been identified to receive improvement funds.”

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