“Sometimes, motorists are annoyed with us for slowing them down or stopping them,” says Colten Gould, a county road supervisor for the past 21 years. “But without road maintenance crews, no one would get anywhere.”
The dedication and skill of Nevada County Roads Division workers has sometimes meant the difference between life and death.
Carlos Ortega, a county road maintenance worker and equipment operator, helped save the lives of motorists stranded above Skillman Campground in the Tahoe National Forest during a March 16, 2020 blizzard.
Nevada County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue volunteers were in their 4x4 searching for the two men when it became impossible for the Utility Terrain Vehicle to navigate ever-deepening snow drifts. After a call for help to the road department, Ortega was dispatched in a road grader to connect with the SAR volunteers.
“I told them, ‘Follow me,’” Ortega remembers, and the UTV fell in behind the grader.
“We didn’t have an exact location for the lost men, just a general idea from a partial ping the Sheriff’s Office got,” Ortega says. “It was nerve-wracking and challenging in the middle of the night with heavy snow falling. It took us another three or four hours to find the car. One of the men was standing on the car hood with a flashlight he was turning on and off. The other man was experiencing some kind of medical distress.
“When we found them, I was pretty stoked. I didn’t get into road maintenance to save lives, but when I get a chance to do something to help someone, I’ll be right there.”
The roads division maintains 561 miles of unincorporated county roadways, from one mile west of the Nevada state border to the Placer County boundary near Auburn. There are 29 full-time employees and up to 10 temporary seasonal employees.
Those employees worked long hours during the last severe rain and wind storm.
"We were proactive in cleaning out culverts and ditches, and responding to areas of flooding and minor mud slides," said Nevada County Road Services Manager John Veasey.
While western Nevada County road crews battled downed trees - removing more than 30 that blocked roadways - workers on the summit battled a deluge of snow.
"Our snow removal crews worked on Christmas and then 16 consecutive days and nights without time off. All the rain we received here was snow up there," Veasey says. "The storm also brought freezing temperatures to the lower elevations, so we responded quickly to reports of black ice. Our sand trucks worked day and night."
When not responding to storm emergencies, road crews are busy doing more than filling potholes. They also grade unpaved roads and apply dust control products. They control roadside vegetation, keep culverts clear, repair guard rails, and maintain county bridges. They conduct an annual inventory of thousands of existing county road signs, and oversee the fabrication and installation of new ones.
They help PG&E, AT&T and first responders get where they are needed. Road maintenance crews partner with the Sheriff’s Office, Office of Emergency Services, California Highway Patrol, CAL FIRE, and other firefighting agencies to allow or prohibit access to active fires and other emergencies. During snow and rain storms, road workers clear downed trees, mudslides, and debris.
Road maintenance costs money. The division’s annual budget is $8.3 million and is primarily funded by gas tax funds.
But effective road maintenance also saves money.For example, timely pothole repairs prevent rainwater from further eroding pavement. Similar savings are reaped when drainage ditches and culverts are free from obstacles and efficiently divert water away from roadways.
Sometimes the sacrifices road workers make are far-reaching and personal.
In September, workers tackled a large-scale maintenance project on Meadow Lake Road, an unpaved area northeast of Hobart Mills and Jackson Meadows. The area is so remote that it took road crews nearly three hours to travel to and from the job site.
“Instead of commuting, we had four guys who stayed there in camp trailers for six weeks to save the county money on travel time and fuel,” says Gould. “It’s not like they were having fun camping and getting paid for it. It was a sacrifice for them to be away from their families each week and come home for supplies only on weekends.”
Because it is in an isolated area of Nevada County, many residents won’t see the freshly-graded road, new pipes, and repaired washouts on Meadow Lake Road. But people who enjoy camping, fishing, hiking, and hunting in the region will enjoy a drive that no longer rattles their teeth and jars their vehicles.
Another rustic area that requires the roads division’s periodic attention – especially after atmospheric rivers – is Maybert Road near Washington.
“Maybert Road has washed out three times in my lifetime, most recently in 2017,” says Washington Fire Chief Mike Stewart. “In 1997, it washed out in three places. The county diligently repairs the road using native rock each time it washes out.”
Maybert Road provides critical access for multiple private residences along the South Yuba River, plus ingress and egress to recreation areas in the Tahoe National Forest.
“Road crews who maintain Highway 89 at the higher elevations and Highway 40 in front of the ski resorts work in treacherous winter conditions,” Gould says. “They often work 16-hour shifts in freezing blizzards. They may also sit in traffic on Highway 20 or 80 trying to get where they’re needed. But when there is work to do, they enjoy it because it makes the shifts go fast.”
During the January 2021 “Snowmageddon” – the heavy snowstorm that stranded many local residents and knocked out vast swaths of power – road maintenance workers helped pull the county out of crisis. Many stayed at the Nevada County Operations Center, some because they couldn’t get home to their families and others because they worried they couldn’t get back to work if they went home.
“And during all of that, Covid was running through our staff,” recalls Gould. “Everybody gave their all. They are the unsung heroes.”
Local residents can request road maintenance services online at https://www.nevadacountyca.gov/roads or by dialing 530-265-1411.