The bustling Sunbeam Rest Area on Interstate 8 west of El Centro is closed indefinitely due to a smelly maintenance issue, but efforts are underway to make the repairs needed to reopen it, officials said.
The way stop is run by the California Department of Transportation. Both the westbound and eastbound sides were closed Jan. 8 after Caltrans maintenance workers discovered toilet wastewater was backing up due to a lack of water pressure, said Carmen Sandoval, a spokesperson for Caltrans District 11 in San Diego that covers Imperial and San Diego counties. Entrances to the facilities are barricaded.
“We don’t know how long it will be closed, but we are working on it,” Sandoval explained in a Jan. 27 interview. “We know it is an inconvenience.”
Sandoval added she did not immediately have information on the status of the repair and that she needed to get details from the Caltrans maintenance department on how the agency would proceed.
An official from the Seeley County Water District, which provides water service to the rest area, said on Jan. 29 the district and Caltrans are making progress to diagnose the problem and make the repairs.
“It (is) a cooperation. Two agencies working together,” said James Strang, district maintenance manager. “They’re being cool and saying ‘We’ll take care of it.’ ”
Strang said district officials met with a contractor hired by Caltrans to assess the situation. But he also said it was not yet known when repairs would be completed so the rest area can reopen.
Meanwhile, interviews indicate work on the repairs was initially slowed while Caltrans and the Seeley water district coordinated their efforts.
Additionally, the public has been given scant information about the matter and Imperial County officials apparently have not been notified of it either.
Strang said after being made aware of the problem by Caltrans in early January the district went to work attempting to diagnose why there was no water pressure. The independent water line going to the rest area is about a mile and half long, but Strang said it was discovered there was sufficient water pressure at a water meter 1500 feet from the rest area.
While that greatly narrowed the area where the problem is, Strang said on Jan. 27 progress on repairs was at a standstill because Caltrans was responsible for them. He explained there is a bad valve at about the halfway point of the 1500-foot section of the line still under scrutiny and the valve needs to be replaced to determine if it is the problem or if there is another problem somewhere in the line.
“The ball’s in their court,” Strang said of Caltrans on Jan. 27. “There’s a valve that’s no good. We’re waiting on Caltrans to cut the valve out. I’m surprised they haven’t contacted us.”
Two days later, on Jan. 29, Strang said Caltrans had taken action. Meeting on the site of the defective valve, district officials and the Caltrans contractor determined there is water pressure to just before the valve, he added.
“The valve needs to be replaced first. Then we’ll see if we get (water) flow to the rest area. It’s a process of elimination,” Strang said.
He added Caltrans has stated it would conduct and pay for replacement of the valve and any other work needed. He said the district will not charge Caltrans for its work to diagnose the water line problem. While the district provides water to the rest area, Strang said Caltrans has its own facility to treat rest area sewage on site.
Sandoval and Strang conceded, however, the public had not been informed of the details of the closure.
Sandoval said Caltrans did post closure signs on I-8 near the east- and westbound exits to the rest area but that she was not aware of further publicity. The “Roadside Rest Areas” section of the main Caltrans website states, “This location closed for maintenance, no ETO.”
Said Sandoval, “There was no media release. We did not realize it was going to be closed that long.”
Strang said the district had not issued any public notice.
Imperial County Supervisor Michael Kelley, whose District 3 includes the westbound rest area, said he was not made aware of the closure and to his knowledge no other Imperial County officials were notified. Kelley’s district includes Seeley, the unincorporated community of about 1,700 about a mile north of the rest area. The eastbound rest area is in District 2 represented by Jack Terrazas.
The Sunbeam Rest Area underwent a major upgrade Sandoval said was completed in June 2011. The westbound facility was demolished and rebuilt while the eastbound one received a major renovation.
Kelley acknowledged Imperial County residents and officials are somewhat skittish about closures of state rest areas following Caltrans’ decision in 2015 to shutter Two Rivers, a popular but aging rest area on Highway 111 south of Calipatria. While used often by recreational vehicle enthusiasts due to its RV sewage dump station, Caltrans stated the rest area had gotten too expensive to maintain.
Caltrans did issue a press release when Two Rivers was closed for three days due to a broken water line in May 2014, according to Desert Review online archives.
Caltrans also operates the Sand Hills Rest Area in Imperial County on I-8 about 20 miles west of Yuma. The next rest area for westbound I-8 traffic is Buckman Springs about 70 miles away near Pine Valley.