Top stories of 2021, part II: Massive summer debris flows that shut down Glenwood Canyon far and away the biggest story of the year
Teacher pay, schools staffing, the politics of masks and Colorado’s top teacher round out our stories of the year
The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon finally burned out after five months in late 2020, but it wasn’t quite done wreaking havoc along the troublesome stretch of Interstate 70 east of Glenwood Springs, as the summer of 2021 would prove.
Starting in late June and throughout July, the predicted mud and debris flows triggered by heavy rains over the 32,631-acre burn scar caused intermittent closures of the major cross-state thoroughfare and recreation areas in the canyon.
Then, the night of July 29, what would later be referred to as a 500-year rain event over some isolated parts of Glenwood Canyon triggered massive slides in several areas, covering the interstate and trails — including the popular Hanging Lake Trail and the recreational bike path —and clogging parts of the Colorado River.
More than 100 people traveling in multiple vehicles were stranded, some overnight in the Hanging Lake Tunnel, when the Colorado Department of Transportation first closed I-70 during an earlier flash flood warning, reopened it, then closed it again when another warning was issued.
Some of the stranded motorists remained in the canyon until late the next day.
CDOT and the Colorado State Patrol had been in the habit of closing I-70 whenever the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning.
The major rain event on July 29 and in the ensuing days would result in I-70 in Glenwood Canyon being closed for a record 15 days before all the mud, rocks and limbs could be removed to make way for traffic again.
Several more months of emergency repairs would be needed to fix the damage that was caused to the roadway, aided by more than $11.5 million in emergency federal funds.
Additional work commenced late in the year to remove the vast amounts of debris still in the river in several locations.
When asked in one of our latest online reader polls what the top story of the year for 2021 was, the Glenwood Canyon flooding, I-70 closure and subsequent closure of the Hanging Lake area was far and away the winner, garnering 75% of the vote.
Hanging Lake reopens … then re-closes
Hanging Lake reopened to the public on May 1 following a lengthy closure in 2020 caused by the Grizzly Creek Fire, and after limits on extra visitors prompted by COVID-19 concerns had been lifted. But it was on again, off again for the popular permit-based Glenwood Canyon destination — now run through a reservation system with the city of Glenwood Springs and recreation contractor H20 Ventures — as the summer mudslides forced another closure for the remainder of 2021 following the late July flooding.
While the lake itself was muddied for several days after the initial flooding, and its fate uncertain, it appeared to be recovering by late September. The same couldn’t be said for the trail, where two bridges were washed out and others damaged, and large piles of mud and debris covered some sections of the path.
The U.S. Forest Service partnered with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and other organizations and received financial support from donations made to the nonprofit National Forest Foundation and other entities.
By late in the year, the Forest Service was working on plans to rebuild the trail, possibly starting with a temporary primitive path in 2022 and full redesign and rebuild in later years.
With the long-term impacts from the mudslides on Hanging Lake and the nearby Spouting Rock feature uncertain, the Forest Service also began working in the fall to try to pinpoint the underground source waters and put mitigation measures in place.
Roaring Fork School District addresses staffing issues through mill levy override
The Roaring Fork School District tapped its mill levy override pool to the maximum legal amount with the passing of 5B in the Nov. 2 election, sourcing up to $7.7 million annually for the primary focus of increasing employee wages.
Why? Because the district continues to grapple with a disproportionate cost of living compared to its budget, deterring new applicants and persuading current teachers and staff to seek more financially stable situations.
The district started the year with more than 60 open positions across its 13 schools in every department from teaching to facilities maintenance.
Superintendent Rob Stein said the new funds will lead to the “largest salary adjustment in district history,” with wages expected to go up 10-12% on average, according to district data.
The funds, however, won’t start coming in until early in 2022, leaving the district’s current employees “hanging on by their fingernails” in the meantime, Stein said.
To compensate, the district issued one-time bonuses of up to $1,000 in December to full-time employees and prorated bonuses for part-time workers, totaling more than $700,000.
The mill levy override plan earned support from 69% of the school district’s voters.
Glenwood Middle School’s Autumn Rivera named Colorado Teacher of the Year
For her in-classroom and in-community excellence, Autumn Rivera, a sixth-grade science teacher at Glenwood Springs Middle School, was named Colorado’s Teacher of the Year for 2022.
In a surprise ceremony in October, Rivera was presented with the award in front of pupils and peers. She was recognized not only for her immersive and modern teaching methods, but also her involvement in the community and the Roaring Fork School District, as well.
Rivera was a co-chair on the Yes on 5B campaign, which led the way in raising awareness for the mill levy override ballot measure for the means of increasing employee salaries.
She also serves on state and district committees focusing on science, labor issues and peer mentoring and advising. She also coaches track and field.
“The amount of stuff she does really well is what the really crazy part is,” Glenwood Springs Middle School Principal Joel Hathaway said. “The fact that she can, day after day, class after class, build relationships with kids, get kids excited about science, be so enthusiastic, have super effective lessons and engagement and do all the millions of things that she does for this school, this community, the district and the state is amazing.”
COVID-19 precautions prompt mask mandates, school board member resigns
Trying to balance a safe, in-person learning environment with periodic quarantines of staff and students was by far Garfield School District Re-2’s No. 1 challenge in 2021.
In September, the western Garfield County school district that oversees approximately 4,700 students in its two high, two middle and six elementary schools saw a record 191 student and 16 staff quarantines. Such significant numbers prompted school district officials and leaders to implement a mandatory mask rule by late September.
Since then, the school district has experienced a sharp decline in COVID-19 infections and quarantines. On Dec. 16 — the most recent date with data confirmed on the district’s online COVID-19 dashboard — quarantines were down to 34 students and five staff.
But while Garfield Re-2 has remained one of 17% of Colorado school districts to sustain in-person learning, the mask mandate spurred staunch opposition by some disgruntled district voters and parents. Using the allotted public comment portion of Garfield Re-2 school board meetings, speakers’ concerns over the mandate ranged anywhere from supposedly infringing upon personal liberties to veiling student expression.
Protests underscored by American flags and picket signs also became a common sight outside the district’s administration building.
But perhaps most noteworthy to come from these trying times was the unanticipated resignation of Garfield Re-2 school board member Katie Mackley on Oct. 13.
The reason? Harassment.
“In the past few weeks, we have been met with screaming at school board meetings, threats to our personal safety, we have been repeatedly maligned and misrepresented on social media and have been stalked in public,” Mackley said upon making her announcement in October.
Post Independent reporters John Stroud, Rich Allen and Ray Erku compiled this report.
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