CDOT improves the flood zone on Ute Pass, Highway 24 to Colo. Springs; delays expected

MANITOU SPRINGS - Three-quarters of the state has "abnormally dry" conditions, but those conditions are perfect for massive, deadly floods.

The Colorado Dept. of Transportation began work Wednesday to make sure any water crashing down the canyons is directed away from people and homes. Workers are installing a giant culvert west of Colorado Springs underneath U.S. Highway 24, the highway that leads out through the mountains,also known as Ute Pass. The extra-large concrete pipe is ten times bigger than the current one, and is expected to take crews until May to finish installing.

CDOT's plan is scheduled to be completed before any big rainstorms sweep through this spring and summer. Last summer, mudslides destroyed three homes in a flash flood.

"It wasn't just water," said Bob Wilson from CDOT. "It was mud, tree branches, debris from Waldo Canyon. Everything is due to that burn scar."

That burn scar is from the Waldo Canyon wildfire in June 2012, which burned nearly 20,000 acres of Colorado's terrain, creating an ideal environment for flash floods. Scientists said that fires actually create a water-repelling ground cover, preventing natural water absorption and increasing the runoff, which can turn into a flood within minutes.

Fires burn away all the shrubs, grass and other flora that draw rain into the earth, leaving nothing but a slick surface for water to rush over the top of and into valleys below. Ute Pass is especially dangerous because of the way the canyon is naturally shaped, officials said.

"It's a very tight location," Wilson said. "Both sides of the canyon are very steep and the water just funnels right through there. We've had a lot of problems with water on the road, mud on the road. Hopefully this new culvert will be able to handle that when we have the inevitable rain this monsoon season."

CDOT's budget for this project is $1.4 million, nearly half of the cost of a similar project taking place west of Fort Collins. Wilson said that the same type of situation exists there. The High Park fire started only weeks before the Waldo Canyon fire and burned almost 90,000 acres, making it the third largest wildfire in Colorado's history by area burned.

Lane shifts during the construction will affect traffic flow at Waldo Canyon, about one mile west of Manitou Springs. CDOT asked drivers to expect possible delays through the area, especially during morning and evening rush hours.