As they approached their driveway Sunday afternoon in rural Prairie City, Mark and Jean Jennings’ four-wheel-drive pickup became stuck in the mud — not in a ditch or field but lodged in the road.
As this winter’s heavy snowpack began to melt this week, compounded by persistent rain, cars and trucks trapped in soggy roadways is now a common sight. Many of Jasper County’s B-level gravel roads have become a nightmare for rural residents; some became impassible.
The roadway runoff may not be over yet. The National Weather Service in Des Moines is forecasting more rain from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 14 in Jasper County before clearing off Friday into the weekend. The service has also issued a flood watch for the area, predicting the South Skunk River at Colfax will crest March 15 at minor flood stage at 18.1 feet.
Despite the uncontrollable drenching from mother nature, some residents like Jean Jennings feel county leaders are not doing enough to better the road conditions.
“People are getting ready to organize. It is an absolute bell jar of the breakdown of the infrastructure in this county,” she said.
Jennings is not the only rural resident who’s worried. Jasper County Engineer Russ Stutt said Monday alone his office took 60 calls on the deteriorating conditions of B-level roads.
The engineering department currently has 12 trucks out daily laying rock in the worst impacted areas, and Stutt said the county’s contracted resurfacing program is in effect. Over the next 25 days, workers will be laying 70,000 tons of gravel, and the subcontractor has been ordered by county officials to lay a minimum of 2,000 tons per day.
According to Stutt, his department has surveyed and is ranking the roads on a scale of 1 to 5, one being the worst and five considered in good condition. Stutt said no gravel road in Jasper County currently ranks as a five.
“We’ve been telling people we’re trying to prioritize and look at roads in the worst conditions first where it will benefit the largest number of travelers and a few limited access (roads). We might have a dead end that’s impassable that someone lives on,” Stutt said. “There might be somebody there who needs emergency crews or services.”
For residents like Jean Jennings, the problem extends back years before this week’s muddy mess. Many residents feel the condition of rural B-level roads has been ignored by the supervisors for years. Jennings argues many gravel roadways near her home have no crown — the raised center of the road that allows water to drain more efficiently. She feels projects in the county seat of Newton, such as moisture infiltration in the basement of the County Annex Building, have been prioritized over the rural roadways.
“The rural residents carry the budget in this county with our tax dollars,” Jennings said. “The infrastructure of this county has been ignored for the last five or six years. Now they’re talking about fixing a basement room in a building in the county seat. If there was a way that we could withhold our taxes until this is fixed, I’d do it.”
There are signs that the supervisors are listening. At the county engineer’s request, Tuesday the board approved a bid from Bruening Rock Products to purchase an additional $702,320 to $983,248 of 1-inch gravel for the current fiscal year to combat the road conditions. The board also put an additional $300,000 for rock into the FY 2019-20’s secondary road budget.
In the meantime, gravel road conditions are having an impact on emergency and local government services. The Newton Community School District began running buses on hard surfaces Tuesday and will continue through Friday.
While fighting a garage fire Wednesday in Reasnor, Sully Fire Department Captain Jason Allbee told Newton Daily News it took his crews 15 minutes longer to get to the scene due to the soggy streets, and two fire trucks became stuck in the mud while leaving the scene. The emergency vehicles had to be towed out.
The road conditions are not much better in other parts of central Iowa. March 11, the Warren County Board of Supervisors ordered a travel embargo on its gravel roads for vehicles more than 10 tons.
By March 14, Jasper County put an immediate embargo on vehicles 10,000 pounds and heavier from driving on rural gravel roads. Officials said travelling on these roads is not advised for any vehicle.
The move by the Jasper County Board of Supervisors follows similar decisions by other central Iowa counties attempting to mitigate the damage to B-level roadways caused by recent rapid snowmelt, rain and thawing ground.
The 60-day embargo was approved by the supervisors 3-0 and prohibits all vehicles larger than five tons with exemptions for emergency response vehicles — fire, EMS and law enforcement personnel — and county maintenance crews.
Thursday's resolution, passed in an emergency 1 p.m. meeting, is allowed under Iowa Code. A second exemption required by the state is for animal husbandry — or any travel related to the care of livestock.
"The reality is, we're in a situation. I don't want to declare an emergency, but it's an emergency and we need to take care of business," said Doug Cupples, board vice chair. "Literally, our roads are getting destroyed by what's going on out there."
The embargo was temporarily lifted on Monday but travel is still restricted on various roads due to flooding.
Contact Mike Mendenhall at 641-792-3121 Ext. 6530 or firstname.lastname@example.org