DENVER | Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Monday he was planning to issue a state disaster declaration and it could be “a few days to a few weeks” before a canyon in the western part of the state can be reopened following massive mudslides that blocked Interstate 70, a major transportation corridor between the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast.
Polis said during a news conference that, weather permitting, crews will be working to clear debris and mud from the interstate. Polis hopes to soon have at least one lane in each direction open through Glenwood Canyon.
The interstate through the canyon was closed after flash floods and about 10 mudslides stranded more than 100 people in their vehicles overnight Thursday, including nearly 30 people who took refuge in a tunnel. Lanes in both directions remain blocked by debris that flowed out of the burn scar from a wildfire last year in the Grizzly Creek area.
“We won’t be fully aware of the extent of the structural damage until some of the debris is cleared,” said Polis, who also is seeking federal assistance. “There are areas that are under 10 feet (3 meters) or more of mud at this point.”
Photos provided by state officials over the weekend showed sections of the interstate’s concrete roadway were smashed by boulders that tumbled from the canyon’s steep walls and a long section of steel guardrail had been sheered off.
The governor had planned to tour the damage Monday but couldn’t because a helicopter was grounded by rain and hail in the area.
Polis said Glenwood Canyon receives an average of 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) of rain in July, but the storm that caused the most recent mudslides dropped about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in five days.
“Unusual monsoon rains on top of the burn scars and debris from the fires is the recipe that has led to the extensive damage and closures,” he said, warning that more rain in the forecast could make matters worse.
Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said drone footage showed debris flows had plunged into the Colorado River and were diverting water to areas it normally would not flow.
“What that means is that it’s diverting up against the highway in some areas, causing more damage, or against the other side of the river that could eventually erode the railway,” he said.
Transportation officials closed a 46-mile (74-kilometer) stretch of the interstate and advised long-distance truckers to detour north onto Interstate 80 through Wyoming. Meanwhile, motorists traveling between Denver and Glenwood Springs were told to take an alternate route that adds about 250 miles (402 kilometers) to the trip.
“This is a major transportation artery,” Polis said. “So on top of the people who live there and the recreational use, this is also disruptive to trucking and commerce and the flow of goods across Colorado, which is yet another reason why we need to get this fixed as quickly as possible.”