It could be awhile before traffic once again streams through Glenwood Canyon on Interstate 70.
The stretch of highway could remain closed for weeks, as Colorado Department of Transportation crews work to clean up and assess the damage following several days of heavy rains and debris flows from the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar.
“We’re looking at a few days to weeks, and more likely getting into the weeks category,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a Monday afternoon news conference in Golden along with CDOT and other state officials.
Having driven through the canyon “hundreds of times” over the years, he called the pictures and drone video footage he’s seen of the damage from several straight days of flash flooding “shocking.”
Polis had planned to join a fly-over of the canyon Monday morning, but said that was canceled due to weather concerns across the state.
The governor noted Glenwood Canyon normally sees about 2.4 inches of rain during the entire month of July. It’s seen 4 inches in five days to close out the month.
Another flash flood watch was issued for the area Monday afternoon by the National Weather Service.
The worst slide so far
While CDOT crews had been able to keep up with the frequent mud and debris flows onto I-70 going back to late June and reopened the highway within a day or less in most cases, the amount of debris and damage dealt to the highway infrastructure over multiple days since the canyon was closed the night of July 29 will take much more time to clean up and assess, Polis and CDOT officials said.
Nearly 30 vehicles and more than 100 people were stranded in the canyon at various points, some stuck in the piles of mud and debris, when the slides occurred after a flash flood warning had been lifted earlier that evening.
“We know this closure has had a big impact on Coloradans who use this corridor on a regular basis to travel the state,” Polis said. “We are doing everything in our power to reopen it as soon as possible.”
Polis said the state has declared a state of emergency and applied for federal disaster relief assistance.
“We are taking immediate action to rebuild the damaged sections as soon as possible, but we won’t be fully aware of the extent of the damage until the debris is cleared,” Polis said.
The Monday afternoon news conference was held live at the CDOT headquarters in Golden, and was also on Zoom and webcast via Facebook Live on the governor’s Facebook page.
CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew participated from Glenwood Springs, where she has been stationed to oversee the Glenwood Canyon response.
“It’s a very grave situation in Glenwood Canyon right now,” Lew said, describing extensive damage to the elevated westbound highway deck and barrier wall in several locations.
10s of millions in damage
Crews were able to clear a path for workers at the Hanging Lake Tunnel command center and the nearby Shoshone power facility, which will assist with critical operations, Lew said.
Elsewhere, multiple debris flows have clogged up the Colorado River, forcing it out of its channel and undercutting the highway structure beneath the eastbound lanes and the adjacent recreation path.
Lew displayed rock specimens from several layers deep within the geologically unique canyon that indicate the extent of the forces impacting the high canyon walls.
She said the primary focus for now is to remove the mud, rocks and trees that have piled up on the highway lanes, sometimes 10 feet or more deep, so that the damage can be assessed.
Lew hesitated to estimate how much the damage to the highway infrastructure will cost to fix, but said it’s already in the 10s of millions of dollars.
Stan Hilkey, executive director for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said during the news conference that a dual concern is the impacts from the tons of debris pouring into the Colorado River.
“The debris in the river is diverting the river into areas where it previously didn’t flow, including up against the highway and causing more damage, or to the other side of the river where it could eventually impact the railway,” Hilkey said of the Union Pacific Railroad line that carries freight and passenger trains. The UP line has also been closed since the latest slides.
Once the interstate reopens, it is likely to be down to one lane in both directions, transportation officials said.
In the meantime, motorists are advised to take the northern alternate route from I-70 westbound at Silverthorne via Colorado Highway 9 to U.S. 40 through Steamboat Springs and Craig, and Colorado 13 south to Rifle and back onto I-70, and vice versa for eastbound traffic.
Construction on U.S. Highway 50 between Montrose and Gunnison has also been temporarily halted, so that is now an alternate route to the south.
Local traffic and increased enforcement
Garfield County and Pitkin County local traffic is allowed to travel between Rifle and Glenwood and onto State Highway 82, but must exit at West Rifle and get back onto I-70 at the Main Rifle exit or points to the east.
“We are trying to limit any inconvenience for locals, but we also are trying to keep transient traffic off of I-70 and direct it onto the detour,” said John Lorme, CDOT director of operations and maintenance.
Through-traffic — motorists and commercial truckers without a local destination — is not allowed past Rifle on the west and Dotsero to the east.
Glenwood Springs tourism officials have been working with CDOT to better delineate highway closure maps that are available at cotrip.org to show that motorists, including visitors from points west or taking the detour from the east can get to Glenwood Springs and the Roaring Fork Valley.
Colorado State Patrol Chief Matt Packard said during the Monday news conference that extra resources have been diverted to the northern detour route and other areas that are seeing more traffic as a result.
“We do have additional troopers on all of those routes, and will keep up on staffing those areas as CDOT continues to assess the situation in Glenwood Canyon,” Packard said. “We just ask that anybody on those routes please be patient and drive extra-safe.”
Union Pacific Railroad tracks through Glenwood Canyon were also impacted by mud and debris flows, shutting down both freight and passenger service through the canyon since late Thursday.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said Monday the California Zephyr line is temporarily suspended and is not running on an alternate route, as has been the case with past closures in Colorado.
“Sometimes we will re-route through Wyoming, but UP can’t support that at this time,” Magliari said.
UP spokeswoman Robynn Tysver said Monday that about 80% of the debris has been cleared from the tracks, and that they should be able to resume rail service through Glenwood Canyon by midweek.
“Crews continued to clear debris Monday caused by last week’s mudslide through Glenwood Canyon,” she said. “Barring any additional delays caused by severe weather or unforeseen events, Union Pacific estimates the track will reopen sometime this week, perhaps by Wednesday.”
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.