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'Bathtubs' and 'super sacks' being used to mitigate debris flow risk in Glenwood Canyon

When warnings are in place, CDOT said it will close the highway through the canyon again this year.

GYPSUM, Colo. — Since the mudslides last summer along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, crews have removed 206,355 tons of material and made improvements designed to protect the roadway, officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT)  said Tuesday.

Mudslides last July led to a safety closure on I-70 for about two weeks. CDOT crews had to remove boulders, dirt, rocks and other debris from the highway before it could reopen.

Since January, CDOT said contractors have focused on removing material from the Colorado River at six locations. The debris piles at those spots were created last summer by mudslides and other material flows.

Removing the debris helps protect I-70 and other infrastructure in the canyon by lowering the risk of damage from high water or new mudslides, CDOT said. Work was expected to be completed this week, which is crucial ahead of the spring runoff season.

In addition, CDOT partnered with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in "unprecedented ways" to help mitigate the risk. That was done in part because CDOT needed to access USFS land to complete a lot of the work.

"We've designed what I like to call bathtubs at the edge of the road," said Steve Harelson, CDOT chief engineer. "So when the mudslides come down, they'll fill the bathtub, rather than filling the roadway up."

PREVIOUS: CDOT completes I-70 repairs after summer mudslides; Focus shifts to river

A new contract was also recently approved to construct more permanent structures that are designed to catch debris.

Right now, CDOT is using "super sacks" that weigh about 3,000 pounds to create a temporary sandbag wall.

"We were able to use the material to provide temporary rockfall protection at Blue Gulch, and to date, nothing has made it through the super sacks," said Andrew Knapp, CDOT engineer. "With the project we have coming out to bid now, we're looking to remove the super sacks and get a more permanent rock fall and debris mitigation system in place there at the bottom of Blue Gulch."

Officials hope these efforts will prevent or reduce the amount of time the highway is closed in the event of a debris flow. Road repairs were completed in December.

Watches and warnings

As of now, CDOT said they'll use the same protocols when deciding when and if to close the canyon. A storm watch of the Grizzly Creek burn area will be a trigger point for action.

If there's a more than 30% probability of there being a watch or warning issued, CDOT will close the rest areas and the recreation path along the highway in the canyon in advance.

"That just allows us time to get everybody out safely," said Todd Blake with CDOT. "If there is a closure within minutes we're not having to worry about the rest areas and the bike path."

When a watch is put in place, crews will be placed at the closures points so that if there is a warning issued, they can close the highway quickly and then wait it out.

"Once the warning is over, between CSP and us, we will come back in the canyon and hopefully have no debris flows and we can open back up," Blake said. "But if there are debris flows, we have loaders, plows on each end, and we'll work hard to get it open as quickly as possible."

CDOT said protocols could change depending on the recovery of land, which could reduce the risk naturally if more vegetation has come back.

Prepared drivers

While work is being done to prevent or reduce closures, officials asked that drivers be prepared.

"What we ask of the public is please don't be complacent when traveling through the canyon," said Mike Willis with the Colorado Office of Emergency Management. "We're not being complacent, and we ask that you partner with us."

They're asking that drivers know the conditions before they enter the canyon by either checking with local authorities or the National Weather Service for any watches or warnings.

"Once you're in the canyon, it's hard for us to tell you things are changing," Willis said. "As you know, there is not a lot of great communication, so know before you go."

Cottonwood Pass

CDOT has also been working with local partners to make improvements to Cottonwood Pass to make it a viable detour route.

"It is little better than a Jeep road," Harelson said. It is not set up for interstate traffic."

The pass is a county road owned by both Eagle and Garfield Counties. CDOT has been in talks with officials from both about potential changes. The first step is mapping to determine the owner of each portion of the roadway so work can be done, if necessary.

"They're not going to become state highway, I think both counties are set on that, Harelson said. "But we want to harden them up, make them a better detour route."

The Federal Highway Administration will be reimbursing the state's costs related to the emergency relief program to support I-70 repairs over the past few months.

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