GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — The Colorado Department of Transportation is wrapping up one project and ready to start others in Glenwood Canyon to protect infrastructure, but officials say they recognize Interstate 70 is also at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Officials provided an update on the plan for Glenwood Canyon at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
In good news, CDOT Chief Engineer Steve Harelson explained that based on data from other wildfires, CDOT has learned that the first year is typically the worst for debris slides after a wildfire. After that, the slope will continue to stabilize over the following four or five years.
CDOT is planning to treat the soil above the interstate to slow down any water that flows down the canyon walls, which will help keep mud and debris from getting onto the road.
“Hopefully this summer will be better than last summer, but it’s just going to get better as Mother Nature heals the canyon,” Harelson said.
Shoshana M. Lew, executive director of CDOT, confirmed that as of a week or so ago, the Federal Highway Administration had reimbursed $27 million for CDOT's projects in the canyon, which ranged from initial maintenance to reopen the highway in 2021 to the multiple engineering contracts. She noted that the total was fluid due to the way the federal program works and how CDOT has been submitting expenses as it progresses.
Andrew Knapp, CDOT central program resident engineer, said after the fire but before the major debris flow, experts looked at possible mitigation elements needed in the area of Blue Gulch in the canyon, but a consultant didn't recommend any sort of mitigation because they said nothing on the market could withstand the energy of a slide like that. That area ended up being hit the hardest, Knapp said.
After the mudslides happened in July and crews were able to analyze the impacts, he said the consultant was probably right and anything that CDOT would have installed would have gone down the river.
Harelson said one of the projects that has been completed since the major slide was what he called "bath tubs" at the edge of the interstate to, in the simplest explanation, "catch" the flows to keep the debris from traveling onto the roadway. It's a technique used in other parts of the world, but rarely in Colorado, he said. This project was completed in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.
When Glenwood Canyon does need to close, CDOT has recommended a northern alternate route that goes up to Steamboat Springs. During the multiple closures in 2021, several drivers followed GPS systems up Cottonwood Pass, which is a county road owned by Garfield County and Eagle County, Harelson said. It is "a little better than a Jeep road" and not set up for interstate traffic, he said.
"We don't want to encourage anybody to use it," he said, especially if you're unfamiliar with it.
Last fall, CDOT started meeting with groups who own property over the pass to identify ways to improve parts of the road. That included the two counties, private owners, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Improvements could include straightening curves or widening roads, but Cottonwood Pass would not become a state highway, Harelson said.
The pass is closed as of now for the season.
Another project that is near completion is the debris removal from the river. Knapp said CDOT's contractors — Lawrence Construction and IHC Scott — have already removed four of six large piles of debris and trucked them out of the canyon. A fifth pile had to be reshaped since it couldn't be removed. And in the next few days, the sixth pile will be removed. As of now, crews removed 206,355 tons of material, Lew said.
Knapp said this puts the canyon in "good shape" for spring runoff, but "Mother Nature has final say in the canyon."
He added that while this project is coming to a close, CDOT just advertised an additional contract to construct new mitigation to replace the current "super sacks" — which are stacked on each other to essentially create a sandbag wall, with each piece about one cubic yard and more than 3,000 pounds — adjacent to the highway, which will provide a more permanent and flexible debris flow catchment fence, he said.
Michael Willis, director of emergency management for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, urged drivers who use Glenwood Canyon to stay vigilant and understand conditions in the area. With a "significant" risk of fires and flows in the canyon this summer, he said it's important to have a plan and to respect any warnings from CDOT or the Colorado State Patrol. Make sure to establish this before driving into the canyon, as cell service can be spotty.
A brief look back at 2021's mudslides and damage
Throughout much of the summer of 2021, rain and subsequent debris slides caused multiple closures along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.
In July 2021, the interstate was closed for about two weeks after mudslides covered parts of the highway with rock and sludge up to 15 feet high in places, causing "extreme damage." In that closure, and many of the other shorter ones, CDOT crews had to quickly clear any dirt, boulders, rocks and other debris, and then check to see if the road required repairs. After the major slide in July, the repairs continued into December.
In the wake of these closures, CDOT and its partners have been working since January to remove debris from the Colorado River at six locations in preparation for possible debris flows this spring and summer. Those six spots were identified as the ones hit the hardest by the 2021 slides. Crews removed the debris to avoid risks related to high water and to protect the infrastructure in the canyon.
The Federal Highway Administration agreed that it is critical to protect the interstate in this way, and will reimburse the costs.
What you need to know if you're traveling through the canyon
CDOT will have an I-70 Glenwood Canyon safety protocol in place through the spring, summer and fall of this year.
CDOT Deputy Superintendent Todd Blake said Tuesday that the department will receive a forecast from NOAA each evening detailing the probability of a flash flood watch or warning in the canyon for the following day. If the chance for either is at or higher than 30%, CDOT will close the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Path and all rest areas as a precaution.
If you're planning to travel through the canyon on I-70 — whether by car or on the recreation path — pay close attention to the weather and any chance of precipitation. Should the forecast call for rain, be ready for a safety closure of I-70 in the area. This also covers all rest areas and recreation path.
Drivers should have a backup plan to get to their destination another way. If the closure is expected to last two hours or longer, CDOT recommends using the northern alternate route, which takes westbound drivers from Silverthorne to Steamboat Springs to Meeker and then merges back onto I-70 in Rifle. Eastbound drivers take the same route in opposite order.
Avoid Cottonwood Pass Road, Hagerman Pass, Eagle/Thomasville Road or other county or forest service roads in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties.
After a closure of the canyon, Colorado State Patrol will sweep the entire area to ensure nobody is stuck in between the two closure points.
Check www.COtrip.org/home for the latest on road conditions and best routes for your trip. For more information about the work being done in Glenwood Canyon, call 970-319-1887 or email I70GlenwoodCanyon@gmail.com.