The Times-Standard  

Prepare railroad tracks for El Niño, county warns
By James Tressler

Fearing a return this winter of the 1998 El Niño storms that wiped out the North Coast's only railroad, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday called for emergency preparations to prevent further damage to the line.

Weather experts have predicted another El Niño this winter. So the board Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution asking the California Transportation Commission and the North Coast Railroad Authority to spend roughly $500,000 for "preventative maintenance," mostly for the 85-mile portion of tracks that runs through the Eel River Canyon.

It was this portion of the line that sustained the most damage four years ago when El Niño storms washed out the tracks along the canyon.

The county and the railroad authority have been working to restore the line in hopes that it will again become a key engine pulling the North Coast's economy. The state several years ago authorized $60 million to restore the line, but that won't happen until an environmental review of the restoration is completed. Railroad officials have said they hope to have the line up and running again by 2006, at a cost of about $100 million.

Leo Sears, chairman of the authority, on Tuesday said the authority agrees that the preventative maintenance is needed. But the authority to use any of the $60 million lies with the California Transportation Commission, Sears said. Sears said he doesn't know if the commission would authorize such an expenditure. He added that getting the commission to do anything is "like pushing a rope uphill."

Most of the preventative maintenance would focus on clearing culverts that run beneath the tracks. These culverts tend to clog up during wet years and then burst, blowing out huge chunks of sediment.

John Lovegrove, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Eureka, said heavy weather from El Niño may not be imminent. This winter's El Niño is expected to be weak or mild compared to the last one four years ago. Unlike strong El Niños, which produce huge rains on the North Coast, weak ones can actually bring drought, as happened in the late 1970s. "It could be dry, it could be wet -- it could be anything," Lovegrove said.

Sears said that if the culverts aren't cleared, even a normal rate of rain this winter could cause severe damage.