Helicopter helps repair project in Kern River Canyon

Helicopter helps repair project in Kern River Canyon »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — For weeks, drivers may have spotted signs warning they could spot a helicopter in use for a construction project in the Kern River Canyon.

The overhead help is now underway, pouring concrete for a repair job near a Southern California Edison power plant.

"The bulk of the flights just started," SCE spokesman Cal Rossi told Eyewitness News.

On Tuesday, the aircraft could be seen hovering over a large construction crew perched on a steep hill above Kern River Powerhouse No. 1.

"It's very rugged and rough terrain, and (the helicopter) is the most effective and practical way of delivering cement to the region," Rossi explained.

The cement is going in to repair 32 footings that support the big and long pipe that stretches down the hill.

"There are water conveyance systems that go several miles up the canyon and from the Democrat area," Rossi said. He explained the big pipe is an overflow system that's used if water backs up going into the power plant. Rossi said the overflow then "delivers water back into the river."

But, the facility got damaged during a big thunderstorm last August.

"The water conveyance system did suffer some damage when heavy rain that was saturated with debris from the storm entered the facility," Rossi said.

That was a storm that hit Aug.19, and it did a lot of damage. On Highway 178 below the big pipe, the roadway was wiped out at a curve just past the power plant.

"That was caused by the failure of part of Southern California Edison's infrastructure up-slope," Caltrans spokeswoman Tami Conrado told Eyewitness News by phone on Wednesday. The agency puts the blame for the road damage on SCE.

"A large volume of water scoured out a channel next to the overflow pipe," Conrado continues. "That released a large amount of rock and water onto the roadway."

The Caltrans spokeswoman says the rush of debris destroyed the outer four feet of the roadway, and the lower embankment slope that supports it.

And, Caltrans has sent SCE a bill for the road repairs. Conrado says the tab is over $500,000. She said the agency sent SCE a bill on March 6, and they haven't heard back yet. "We hope we can come to an agreement," she said.

Rossi says the utility is convinced the storm was a "fluke event," and the road damage isn't their fault.

"It's the first time that we've had a storm severe enough to damage the facility in the manner in which it did," Rossi said. He notes the powerhouse has been there for more than 100 years.

"Also there were long stretches of Highway 178 that experienced slides," the SCE spokesman added, saying areas far from their facility were also damaged by the heavy rain. "And we very much view this as an act of God, and wholly related to the fluke storm."

He says SCE will "respond appropriately" to the highway repair bill from Caltrans.

Meanwhile, the company is fixing their system.

Rossi says it's expected the helicopter trips to pour cement will go on for about three weeks, weather permitting.

"We appreciate the folks' patience and understanding as we work through this project," he said. The company has the flashing highway warning signs out, and crews stopping traffic in the area when the 'copter is overhead.

Rossi said drivers on Highway 178 could see delays of some five to ten minutes. "And by the end of the month, we should restore traffic flow back to normal."