Early snowstorm challenges highway crews, school officials trying to resume in-person classes
An early-season snowstorm that swept across western Colorado Sunday and Monday brought midwinter-like snow and temperatures, testing motorists and highway maintenance crews and lobbing a curving snowball at school reopening plans.
Even when it looked like the worst had cleared late Monday, commuters hit the roads early Tuesday only to be greeted by a veritable ice rink along Interstate 70 west of Glenwood Springs and on Colorado Highway 82.
“It was the perfect confluence of events that combined with this storm to beat us,” Colorado Department of Transportation regional spokeswoman Elise Thatcher said.
Fall and spring snowstorms can be particularly challenging, she said, because of wide temperature differences between the ground and the air combined with moisture, which causes paved surfaces to ice up — the old wet tongue on a frosty flagpole effect.
Area highways were pretreated with a magnesium chloride mixture that was modified to match the conditions highway crews were experiencing, Thatcher said.
Despite that, the temperature differential decreased its effectiveness. After snow removal efforts all day Monday, motorists Tuesday encountered super-slick highway conditions and slow-going traffic through the usual pinch-point of South Canyon west of Glenwood.
“We got a fair amount of snow covering that icy layer, which was then aggravated once people were driving on the snow,” Thatcher said.
The result was a two-hour trip Tuesday morning from Rifle to Glenwood Springs on I-70. That normally takes about 25-30 minutes.
CDOT also had two snowplows out of the Rifle maintenance area go down Monday, including a sander that was out of commission, Thatcher said.
The lingering impact of the much-needed moisture could also test the stability of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area in Glenwood Canyon, which CDOT is monitoring but does not see as an immediate threat.
“Our crews noted 5 inches of snow in Glenwood Canyon with this storm,” Thatcher said Monday. “We do not anticipate that the snowfall will affect the burn area, aside from putting down some moisture which will help with recovery.”
This snow itself didn’t increase the rockfall danger, though that will be a concern during the freeze-thaw cycle over the next few days.
“That’s hard to predict,” Thatcher said. “If it rains on top of the snow, then we will be monitoring for soil flows, which could bring down rocks.”
School decisions hampered
Meanwhile, the storm hit just as the Roaring Fork Schools were preparing for the return of grades 4-8 to classrooms in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak last spring, and the second week of in-person classes for K-3.
Superintendent Rob Stein said the decision to proceed — even as several other area schools called a snow day or switched to online instruction only — followed the usual snow day determination process.
“Like everyone else I was waiting this (Monday) morning to hear from our crews on the roads, who determined it was safe for school buses to drive and transport kids to school,” Stein said.
“We did get some feedback that people felt unsafe, but we didn’t deviate from our normal process,” he said. “A lot of people were feeling a little bit like fate just isn’t on our side.”
In addition to the snowstorm, the school district also was dealing with its first COVID-related quarantine situation at Carbondale’s Crystal River Elementary School over the weekend.
And, hardly an hour into the school day Monday the Basalt schools lost electricity when there was a major outage in the Holy Cross Energy grid from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. Basalt Elementary and Middle schools ended up being release early before noon as a result.
“All of those variables interacting at once was not how we would like to have tested our systems,” Stein said.
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Contact with two presumed positive cases has led to 65 students and staff at Basalt Elementary School transitioning to remote instruction.