San Jose

‘Big Problem': Caltrans Eyeing Solution to Recurring Mudslides in Santa Cruz Mountains

Crews spent Wednesday digging and trying to clear away debris left over from a massive mudslide on Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Caltrans officials predicted they will be out there all night.

The seemingly endless mudslides, both large and small, have made it an agonizing year for commuters on Highway 17. Crews are using lights and special machinery, known as the Spider, to work on Tuesday’s slide.

The Spider was brought in from San Luis Obispo. Its wheels are on mechanical arms that extend into four legs, so it stays stable while it digs and moves uphill like a spider. That capability is crucial on a top heavy slide, such as this one, according to Caltrans.

It’s “kind of like digging a hole in the sand,” said Caltrans engineer Devin Porr. “As you dig a hole, the sand fills in from the top. So this machinery allows us to get to the top, remove the top, working down, and cut this slope to a more stable position."

Also in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a large sinkhole on Skyland Road swallowed up a van late Tuesday night, shutting down yet another route to mountain communities. The driver was on the way back from the store and rolled right into the washed out road, escaping uninjured.

A driver returning home from the store late Tuesday night rolled a van into a massive sinkhole on Skyland Road in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Resident Dana Scoby said she had passed over that part of the road about an hour before it gave way.

"It was flat, no stream going under there," she said. "I don't believe there was a culvert or anything."

Meanwhile, drivers that rely on Highway 17 have endured many delays during the Bay Area’s storms. One such instance occurred during a mudslide last month at the exact location of the latest one – near Scotts Valley – that tied up traffic starting Tuesday.

And Caltrans officials admit that more ambitious plans are needed to address the recurring issue.

"I'm a nurse, so I have to get to work,” said Denise Baird of Santa Cruz. “So yeah, it's been a big problem this year, and our back road, which is the Summit, also had mudslides."

When asked about the frustrated commuters and Caltrans’ plans to stabilize these parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Porr replied, “We’re looking at those now.”

He said: "A long-term solution could be putting up a larger rock catch system."

While another “would be to get in here and lay the slope back, and cut it to a much shallower angle,” Porr noted.

The solution will ultimately depend on factors including state funding and how long Caltrans can afford to keep Highway 17 closed to do the work.

But at least temporarily, officials are focused on keeping drivers moving in single lanes, both north and south bound.

"That will be through the weekend as long as this next storm doesn't do anything unexpected,” said Trista Draka, a spokeswoman for the Santa Cruz California Highway Patrol.

Meanwhile, some drivers were relieved to have even a single lane open during the cleanup.

"It's kind of fun,” said Gabriel Carmona of San Jose. “You can still get through. It might take a little while but it's all right, as long as you plan it right."

There was no estimated times for reopening Skyland Road or the northbound lanes of Highway 17, but crews were working through the night, hoping to stabilize the hillside before the rain returns Thursday morning.

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