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When Every Second Counts: I-Team reveals new progress in keeping flood-prone and sand-drifted roads open

The Coachella Valley Association of Governments is moving ahead with new plans to build some short bridges and culverts through the Whitewater Wash on Indian Canyon Drive along with two other major roadway connectors. The idea is to keep the roads open and clear of sand and flood waters.

Feb. 2019 photo of Indian Canyon Drive in Palm Springs during one of many flooding incidents.

The frustrations with the all-to-often storm-related road closures between Interstate 10 and the city of Palm Springs are inconvenient for anyone trying to get somewhere. “When it’s closed then I have to go around and call my work and let them know I’m going to be late,” said Cynthia Garcia of Desert Hot Springs.

Uber driver Kenneth Griffin, also of Desert Hot Springs said of the road closures, “It’s not good. It’s not good!”

Drivers have dealt with at least 11 weather-related closures on Indian Canyon Drive through the Whitewater wash this year alone. It’s inconvenient for everyone, but also critical for others who live in Desert Hot Springs, the high desert, or west toward Banning.

Cars and trucks were buried in sand and mud during this flood on Varner Road near Edom Hill and Date Palm Drive in Feb. 2019.

CVAG’s new blow sand design project would include Indian Canyon Drive along with low water crossing projects on Varner Road and Date Palm Drive north of the freeway near Edom Hill. They’re also identified as major trouble stretches during storm flooding events. 

CVAG Staff is recommending a contract with Michael Baker International to proceed with design work for all three locations simultaneously at a cost of four to five million dollars. The firm has built several other bridges over the wash at Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City, the Adams Bridge in La Quinta, and the Miles and El Dorado bridges in Indian Wells. 


Driving upon a road closure at Indian Canyon, Gary Denham of AMR Ambulance said, “This really prevents us from getting to where we need to go and do our job.”

Jeff Stahl rode along with Denham who says road flooding and sand closures can add precious minutes, and be a matter of life or death, for a critical patient being rushed to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. It's the Coachella Valley’s only Level 2 trauma center. Indio's JFK Memorial Hospital offers Level 4 trauma care.

“It can be roughly 15 and 20 minutes sometimes depending on how heavy the traffic is, the time of day,” Denham said adding road closures can be detrimental to the outcome of a patient.

CVAG put out a request for proposals to design short bridges and or culverts to help drivers get past the blowing sands and flood waters in the riverbed. Those proposals were due last Tuesday, August 16.

Artist rendering of potential bridge structure along Indian Canyon Drive courtesy Michael Baker International

Mary Guevarra of Desert Hot Springs said, “Sometimes, you never know the weather” when commenting about getting through the Whitewater wash during inclement weather.

"And with the unannounced water coming across Indian one of our ambulances actually hit it,” said Denham of last week’s storm waters. He added that the emergency ride was delayed, and it was not the first time.

AMR ambulance driving through a flooded Indian Canyon Drive on Feb. 18, 2019.

Road closures and congestion can double or triple the amount of time needed to get to the hospital in Palm Springs. Delays can also make it harder for people to get to doctor’s appointments, work, or school.

Plans to bridge the Whitewater River have been talked about for more than a decade especially when it rains. But little has been done up until now to see it through. 

Indian Canyon Drive during a flood closure August 17, 2022.

CVAG asked engineers to submit their best designs this summer while including bike lanes and remaining compatible with the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. It’s a valley-wide agreement approved on October 2, 2008, that now protects vast swaths of our desert land, plants, and native animals from development. 

Desert Hot Springs Mayor Scott Matas asked, “What can we build that’s a lot less than a bridge that would help that sand move? Because it still needs to move for environmental reasons.

Crews work to clear drifting sand from Indian Canyon Drive after a windstorm.

"Waiting around for someone to give us $250 million dollars per bridge is not the way to solve problems," said Tom Kirk, Executive Director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments. "So we’re taking a proactive approach here to do this in a way that’s cost-effective, smart for the taxpayer, smart for the traveling public, and smart for our community,” Kirk added.

Matas said, “When you’re in an ambulance and they’re trying to do everything they can to get to the hospital fast enough how many people have lost their lives because of this is the question.” 

Desert Hot Springs city leaders are well aware of the problem. Now, the coalition is being led by CVAG and considering proposals to design and engineer a lower-cost project. Its price tag is in the range of $40 million dollars after earlier more expensive projects, costing up to $250 million dollars to build two long bridges, were never built. The new project’s price tag remains a hefty sum, but just 14% of that earlier more elaborate plan. 


Contracts for engineering the projects could be awarded this fall with some work starting in October. The projects would include bids for permits, environmental studies, design, and engineering, among other things including construction bid documents.

Gene Autry Trail is not included in this first project, seen as not as critical as Indian Canyon Drive, Varner Road and Date Palm Drive right now. 

If approved, staff will fast-track the new projects to get them construction-ready as soon as possible and if all goes as planned, CVAG expects the project to take 3 to 4 years to design and build. 


CVAG says Representative Raul Ruiz also has put in a request for federal funding for local initiatives that would include $2.5 million dollars for new bridge work on Indian and Gene Autry in Desert Hot Springs. CVAG also has an earmark request for related funding with US Senator Alex Padilla.

See Jeff Stahl’s other I-Team investigations at

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