Residents say Arnold bridge replacement needs to be a priority

A culvert across Murphys Drive was destroyed when rainy weather in early 2017 washed out the deteriorating infrastructure many used as a crossing point over Moran Creek.

Some are fearful a fatal disaster could be waiting to happen in an Arnold subdivision where severe winter weather took out a culvert crossing last year and repairs may take another year or more.

“It’s (potentially) an Oakland Hills Fire situation,” said Les Olson, a homeowner in the area, comparing the traffic restrictions caused by the loss of the culvert to a 1991 Bay Area firestorm that killed 25 people along narrow, winding roads where emergency personnel struggled to gain access to threatened homes.

Many other homeowners near the crossing have expressed similar concerns since tree debris from the county’s bark beetle epidemic flowed downstream and caused a 50-year old culvert crossing to erode and collapse early last year. That left approximately 192 residents of Blue Lake Springs units 14, 15 and 16 only one way out, a narrow, two-lane roadway. That bottleneck could make it difficult for residents to evacuate quickly across Moran Creek in the event of any emergency.

In January of 2017, the county was inundated by stormy weather that caused $7 million worth of damage, a number that has grown to this day, said Public Works Director Jeff Crovitz during a March 8 gathering of concerned homeowners and county representatives in Arnold.

The damage was debilitating, especially after the Butte Fire caused at least $8 million worth of damage and destruction to county roads and infrastructure the year before. It prompted an emergency declaration to seek help from federal and state agencies in January 2017 because the county did not have the money in the bank to make repairs.

Some fixes, potholes and drainage blockages were minor. Others required more work, like a temporary bridge over Blagen Road that was needed to provide access to White Pines Lake and the Ebbetts Pass Moose Lodge after the same rains washed out a different culvert along that road.

For a while, residents thought the Murphys Drive fix would not take long. Olson’s wife Jane believed the county was going to fix the roadway before the end of last summer. When that did not happen, she and others began to apply community pressure on District 3 Calaveras County Supervisor Michael Oliveira.

The repair schedule was always going to take a few years at least, Crovitz said during a phone interview March 9. The county could have finished it sooner if it was able to begin physical work on the project within 60 days of the storms, a sequence that would have allowed the county to conduct the environmental studies and mitigations after construction, but the county did not have the infrastructure in place at the time to expedite the work.

County officials still have to conclude California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act studies before construction can proceed. The NEPA study has not begun, Crovitz said. That evaluation will be conducted on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s schedule.

Meanwhile, residents maintain the project should take priority over all “nonlife-threatening” issues in the county, a plea some asserted, in conjunction with requests to widen nearby Avery Drive, during comments at a Feb. 27 meeting of the Board of Supervisors.

The appeal was noted by supervisors, Oliveira said during the Arnold gathering, and it was agreed that discussions would come to a March 27 supervisors’ meeting where they will decide whether to fund this project with some of the extra $9 million – primarily from cannabis tax dollars – that the county found in General Fund savings during a midyear budget review last month.

Crovitz said during the same meeting that a contractor estimated the Murphys Drive culvert replacement would cost $300,000. FEMA allocated $149,000 to the project.

If the county decides to pay out of its General Fund to repair the culvert crossing, that would expedite the project, eliminating the need for a lengthy NEPA study because federal funds would not be needed. The county would still be required to conduct a CEQA analysis.

The potential of identifying endangered species habitat or archaeological or historical artifacts could stall the work even if funding is available, Crovitz said. Any of those concerns could require intervention by officials from various agencies to mitigate potential damage to the environment.

“Once we hit a cultural site, all work has to stop and the cultural agency is contacted,” said Oliveira. “They will move at their own pace.”

Other infrastructure issues remain in other parts of the county that could take up some of the available funds. Officials are working on a $6 million intersection project near a school in District 1 and a bridge in District 2, among others.

Pending litigation against the county could also limit additional infrastructure spending.

Oliveira said during the Arnold meeting he was “very concerned about the county’s ability to be successful” in three cannabis lawsuits filed against the county thus far.

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