An intense storm hit the high desert area in July 2013, wreaking havoc in Ridgecrest and surrounding areas. The event, called a micro-burst, lasted only a few minutes, but the damage is still being repaired. The rains and subsequent flash-flooding destroyed portions of the Trona-Wildrose Highway that leads from Trona to Panamint Valley in Death Valley National Park. Portions of the Panamint Valley Road have been closed due to the flooding as well. Aside from being a nuisance for travelers, the road closure has put a damper on local tourism.
Bob Brown, supervisor for Inyo County’s road department, said Wednesday that crews have been working tirelessly since the Thanksgiving weekend to make the repairs. He said an emergency opening of one lane of the road should be made by the end of the working day on Friday, “If everything goes OK.”
Nathan Ahle, Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce CEO, said that the road opening will definitely have a positive effect on the community and businesses. He said he expects to see more traffic once the road opens.
“The more ways we can get people into town, the better,” Ahle said Wednesday. “We’ve had several people coming in headed to Death Valley that we’ve had to send north,” to Lone Pine for access to Death Valley because of the road closure.
Ahle said the road opening will also be good for people traveling from the north who will now have easy access, again, from Death Valley to Trona and Ridgecrest.
The road will be open Friday — dusty and bumpy, but open.
Brown said that barring an act of God, “or a problem I didn’t foresee,” the road should open on Friday.
He said there will be a 1.7-mile section of the emergency opening that will be dirt, and motorists should drive with caution. However, the road will be open to all vehicles, including tourist buses.
The opening comes at an opportune time as the wildflower season is rapidly approaching. The forecast for desert wildflowers is not looking good because of dry weather, but rain is forecast in the valley for this weekend.
Ahle agreed that the wildflower season is approaching and local hotels, restaurants and other businesses are ready for the wildflower lovers and their tourist dollars.
Large portions of the roadway either washed away or were compromised by having its foundation washed out. Brown explained that there are two ways a road is damaged by flooding. One is that material flows over the roadway that can lead to erosion of the top of the road and possible breakage of the asphalt and the road slipping off its foundation. Erosion of the foundation is the other damage caused by flooding.
Brown said that water can seep underneath the road itself and permeate the base material. The water, pushed and pressurized by the force of the flood as water races down mountains, erodes away the foundation and the road can collapse. Brown said a “heavy truck” could have crushed the road under its weight due to the damage.
Brown explained Trona-Wildrose Road suffered both types of damage. He said that the flood probably came from the west and hit the road that was perpendicular to the flooding.
The repairs are so extensive that Inyo County, which maintains the roads, had to apply for federal emergency funds for repairs. The total cost of the damage is between $1 million and $2 million.
Brown said the paving portion of the construction would go out to bid soon with shovels on the ground by late spring or early summer.
Brown said the new road would be lower than the old road. He said the road was raised up off the surface and sits high. This could have exacerbated the erosion, allowing water more area to get underneath the road, causing the road to subside.
The new road will have a “lower profile,” Brown explained. He hopes the lowering of the road will prevent future flooding from getting underneath the asphalt and water and material will flow over the top.
Trona-Wildrose Road has been closed since August at the Ballarat turnoff. The largest national park outside of Alaska has received more than its fair share of weather related road damage.
According to the Death Valley Road Facebook page, “The road from Scotty’s Castle east to the park boundary will be closed to all traffic for up to 60 days. This closure will likely be through February and March 2014. The castle will be open at all times from the south via Scotty’s Castle Road.”
Scotty’s Castle Road and Mesquite Springs Campground Road are under construction, and motorists can expect 30-minute delays Monday through Saturday.