DOTSEROGlenwood Canyon’s been besieged by mudslides since June 26, leading to numerous closures of Interstate 70 that have held up truckers, tourists and locals as steep, fire-ravaged slopes become pathways for rushing mud and debris.
But a slide that sent thousands of boulders crashing into the Colorado River on July 22, effectively damming one of the country’s largest rivers and threatening the eastbound lanes of the interstate, was different.
The 10-foot-plus barrier of jumbled rock that now stretches across the full width of the river — and which forced the waterway into a narrow channel up against the highway — prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation to rush engineers to the scene to assess whether the integrity of eastbound I-70 was threatened.
“This was not something we were completely prepared for, as far as planning-wise for the amount of debris that came down,” said Mike Goolsby, CDOT’s northwest regional director. “It was unexpected that it would come clear across the river and basically dam the river completely up against our highway.”
It’s a harbinger of things to come, state officials say — and will impact not just vacationers but also local businesses, interstate shipping and the environment. Last year’s nearly 33,000-acre Grizzly Creek fire scorched and denuded the land to the point that the soil above the highway can no longer absorb afternoon downpours.
The situation grew even worse over the weekend.
I-70 has been closed since Thursday night, when heavy rain caused “multiple large mudslides” across the roadway. One hundred eight people were trapped in the Hanging Lake Tunnel overnight Thursday due to debris on the highway and had to be rescued.
Sunday afternoon, CDOT announced I-70 through Glenwood Canyon will remain closed for an extended period due to even further damage from another round of heavy rain and flooding the night before. There’s no estimate for when the interstate will reopen.
“From the briefing call that I was a part of, senior operations supervisors and engineers described extreme damage, the likes of which they had never seen in the canyon before,” CDOT communications director Matt Inzeo said Sunday.
Truckers are now being advised by CDOT to avoid I-70 altogether and take Interstate 80 through southern Wyoming.
“As long as the monsoon season and the moisture producing it is the way it is, our folks are going to be busy,” Goolsby said. “You’ve got a 16-mile stretch of highway, and weather and 16 miles can be really fickle. And unfortunately, right down in the middle of all those drainages is Interstate 70.”
Cole Bangert, owner of Sage Outdoor Adventures in Dotsero, will be operating in a world of uncertainty because of the mudslides. His company sends people rafting down Glenwood Canyon — seven boats in the morning and seven in the afternoon.
Four times this summer, Bangert’s customers have been marooned in Glenwood Springs during highway closures, prompting Sage to have to drive them back to their cars via Cottonwood Pass Road into Gypsum or over Independence Pass — journeys that take hours instead of the 25-minute drive via I-70.
“When our trip ends in Glenwood Springs and they close the canyon, we’re kind of screwed,” he said. “It can be anywhere from a two-hour delay to eight hours delay.”
The situation prompted Sage to cancel all afternoon trips last week, given the daily forecast for potential flash flooding, and all trips the weekend before, when CDOT closed down I-70.
“It’s a nightmare, man,” Bangert said.
I-70 through Glenwood Canyon carries 20,000 vehicles a day on average. CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew said her agency will take the precautions it needs to ensure that motorists remain safe, even if it’s inconvenient.
“I think what you’re seeing now is the long tail we all knew was coming last summer,” Lew said. “For the same reasons (Glenwood Canyon) is a gem of the interstate system, it’s also just extraordinarily complicated with risks. We manage (mudslides) but they’re not going to go away and it’s an exercise in respecting the enormity of Mother Nature.”
The agency closed I-70 in the canyon after the July 22 rock slide — one of almost a dozen closures since late June — while it made an inspection of the roadway, ultimately deeming it safe.
Lew said her agency sympathizes with business owners like Bangert and the hundreds of others at the west end of the canyon in Glenwood Springs, a city of 10,000 that largely operates at the mercy of a functioning I-70.
“We’ve been very mindful that each of these closures have a cost to the people who live here,” she said. “Part of our message is to beg for people’s patience and caution when we do these precautionary closures.”
On a media tour last week in the canyon, Goolsby said CDOT would deploy heavy equipment to cut a “pilot channel” through the river-spanning debris field to take pressure off the highway’s foundation and let spring runoff next year move rocks and logs through.
That same July 22 storm deluged the Cinnamon Creek drainage that runs over the top of the Hanging Lake Tunnels, threatening to fill the tunnels with debris and shut down I-70 indefinitely. A berm built last summer by CDOT contained the creek and stopped it from damaging the tunnels below.
Troubles in the canyon have been largely offset, according to Lisa Langer, director of tourism promotion for Glenwood Springs. The insatiable desire of people locked away for more than a year during the pandemic has prompted them to hit the road, with tourism this summer up 30% to 40% over summer 2019 in Glenwood Springs.
“We are really fortunate this year — this is an anomaly year,” she said.
For every person on the Front Range who chooses not to risk venturing to Glenwood Springs for fear of finding the highway shut down, Langer said, there are those who end up in the city for that very reason.
Recently, she said, two sisters on their way to Pennsylvania found themselves waylaid in Glenwood Springs. They decided to stick around in the city for a couple of days while they waited for the highway to reopen. And Langer said they had an unexpectedly great time.
“The people who cancel or who can’t make it are replaced by people who get stuck here,” Langer said.
Denver Post reporter Shelly Bradbury contributed to this report.
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