AASHTO Journal, 17 April 2015
For weeks this spring, crews from the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities have battled to open the Dalton Highway north-south supply route to Deadhorse, other North Slope towns and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields near the Arctic Ocean, as the adjacent Sag River flooded parts of that route.
At times they’ve been set back as the icy river repeatedly rose up in what is described as “an unprecedented overflow” along the northern end of a highway made famous on the “Ice Road Truckers” TV show. Then crews would bring in equipment to punch holes in the river’s ice coating and create trenches so its water could flow away from the road.
A series of press releases on the agency’s website have tracked the course of that battle.
The agency said ice had formed on the river bottom, pushing water upward despite a surface ice sheet that spread for miles. Crews used satellite imagery to identify where water was flowing so their equipment could break through and direct the water toward flowing channels.
“The Dalton Highway is a vital road, and the magnitude of this event is humbling,” said Marc Luiken, ADOT&PF commissioner. “There has been tremendous effort put forward so far, and there will be tremendous effort yet to come. We will get the road open,” he said April 10. “It is not a question of if, only a question of when.”
Two days later, the agency opened the road to limited traffic – 30 trucks loaded with “the most critical loads,” then again closed the six-mile section for inspection before letting the next 30 trucks make the run. Hundreds of trucks with food, fuel and other cargoes were reportedly waiting to make the run.
But Luiken, who visited the site, said getting to the point of opening the road for limited use took “herculean” efforts by ADOT&PF employees and private construction crews, who were building ice berms and taking other measures to divert the Sag.
“Everyone involved recognized the importance of the situation, and they rose to the challenge,” Luiken said. “The conditions are cold and harsh, and the magnitude of this event is daunting. Nonetheless, crews have worked around the clock with the singular goal of opening the Dalton Highway.”
They had been aided by an April 7 verbal state disaster declaration by Gov. Bill Walker, which meant the state could fund eligible emergency response costs and eligible repair work. Afterward, two contractors brought in more workers and equipment to augment the agency’s force.
By April 14, the department was seeing enough water flow away from the road that it increased truck convoys to 50 at a time moving through the flood zone from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, while crews would continue heavy maintenance of the route overnight.
Even then it was unclear what to expect next. “The Sag River remains difficult to predict,” the agency said, “and the warmer spring temperatures due to reach the North Slope will melt snow and ice, producing more water and possibly more instability.”