Surveying flooding along Highway 37 in January, ecologist Fraser Shilling began doubting his projections for when climate change will cause severe, perhaps catastrophic impacts on the major North Bay thoroughfare.
In an influential 2016 report used as a guide for the highway’s future, Shilling, co-director of the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis, had established a timetable of several decades for those impacts to be fully realized.
But that was before January storms forced the full or partial closure of the highway for roughly 12 days, causing havoc for thousands of daily commuters.
“We’re starting to overwhelm the system in places that we were thinking we had 20 years of lead time. But we don’t,” Shilling said this week from his office in Davis. Delaying action could be catastrophic, he said, predicting that one day water will push over embankments and levees and the highway will be “gone.”
Highway 37, one of the lowest-lying in California, has long been threatened by climate change and rising sea levels, inadequate levees and political waffling over who bears responsibility for maintaining and upgrading the road. The 21-mile highway meanders across four counties — Solano, Napa, Sonoma and Marin — traversing tidal marshlands, rivers and creeks, and farmland where flooding presents a threat to livelihoods.
“You’ve got farms, freeways and frustrated drivers — and sea level rise,” said Brian Swedberg, who manages 525-acre Petaluma River Farms north of the highway across from Port Sonoma.
According to Sonoma County historian Gaye Lebaron, Highway 37 dates to 1870 when the state Legislature passed a law allowing people to buy swampland for a dollar an acre contingent on the construction of levees.
Sections of the roadway were added in subsequent years, atop marshes at the edge of San Pablo Bay. A 10-mile section of the road was operated for a time as a toll road, prior to the state highway system purchasing that stretch in 1938 — the same year the Golden Gate Bridge opened.
Highway 37 afforded a more direct access to Vallejo from Sonoma and Marin counties. But flooding and sea level rise threaten to sever that link.
January floods forced Caltrans to shut the highway between Highway 101 and Atherton Avenue in Marin County for the better part of seven days, and to restrict traffic to a single direction an additional five days, according to California Highway Patrol data.
Roughly 41,000 vehicles pass through that stretch of highway on a daily basis, according to Caltrans.
As a result of the closures, motorists endured much longer drive times along detours that included residential neighborhoods.
“It’s no joke. This corridor is in peril. How do we address that going forward?” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.
Swedberg, who has managed Petaluma River Farms for 30 years, said January’s “perfect storm” of heavy rain and high tides brought the river to within a half-foot of topping the levee protecting the farm. He said the river spilled over the levee in another location farther south, closer to the bay.
His perennial concern is that a major breach could overwhelm pumps and bring water gushing over sensitive farmland and the highway.
“It’s not going to get any better. That’s what Fraser tells us at all these meetings,” Swedberg said.