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Severe mudslides trigger I-70 closure in Colorado

Section of highway could stay closed for weeks

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis plans to declare a state disaster and request a federal disaster declaration after severe mudslides and flooding extensively damaged Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon. This is according to a report from KMGH-TV in Denver.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Polis said he was pushing the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to get one lane of Interstate 70 in each direction open as quickly as possible. But he acknowledged it will take “a few days to a few weeks” before that happens, which will also depend on weather conditions over the next few weeks.

The I-70 closure through Glenwood Canyon began Thursday after another round of heavy rain dumped debris and mud onto the interstate and through the viaduct into the Colorado River.

More than 100 people had to spend the night on the highway and inside a tunnel that night. It was the latest mudslide-related closure in Glenwood Canyon over the past five weeks.

On Sunday, CDOT officials said there was extensive damage to the viaduct unlike anything they had seen before. On Monday, CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew said the Colorado River had also diverted because of the debris and was damaging the structure of the interstate and viaduct in several areas.

Polis and Lew said that there would have been road closures anyway in the area when 4 inches of rain fell in five days, compared to the 2.4 inches the area normally sees for the entire month of July.

But because of the damage done to the area by the Grizzly Creek Fire last year, the heavy rains caused unprecedented mudslides, covering the interstate in up to 10 feet of debris in some places. Lew said some of the debris had come from thousands of feet above the roadway, and the officials showed new drone video of the path the debris has taken down to the interstate and river and damaged the upper deck of I-70.

Polis said engineers and other crews would first have to clear the debris from the river, interstate and viaduct before damage assessments can be fully completed and before any sections of the interstate can open.

The ongoing monsoon weather pattern could lead to more flash flooding, making matters worse and delaying the necessary inspections.

Polis said the state disaster declaration and request for federal Stafford Act disaster money were both in the process of being made Monday in order to help free up more money and resources for the state and local crews working to repair and open I-70.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the area, tweeted Monday that she had been briefed on the situation by both Polis and CDOT, saying, in part, “I offered my full support and pledged to work with them and the entire delegation on state and federal disaster declarations as we seek to get I-70 opened safely and ASAP.”

Stan Hilkey, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said crews would also work to be sure the river does not wash out the retaining walls below the railway that runs through the area. Amtrak trains were not running again between Denver and Grand Junction on Monday.

Transportation and State Patrol officials continue to urge commercial vehicles and recreational vehicles to use Interstate 80 through Wyoming to get around the closure. KMGH-TV also reported that Colorado State Patrol Col. Matthew Packard said his agency had diverted more troopers onto some of the workaround routes, including Independence Pass on the south side of I-70, as well as the northern route through Steamboat Springs, as some people illegally took CMVs or recreational vehicles on Independence Pass over the weekend.

CDOT has canceled several planned projects so that people can continue to take detours around the closure, Lew said. She was hesitant to provide an estimate thus far on how much damages and repairs will cost but said it was probably already in the “tens of millions.”

Flash flood watches are in effect again Tuesday across much of western Colorado, including the Glenwood Springs area. Check Colorado road closures here.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.