`We can’t say the worst is over’ for mudslides
The danger of mudslides from slopes burned by the Coal Seam Fire appears to be over for the winter, but experts say slides could happen next spring and summer, and for years to come, under the right conditions.Predicting the risk of more mudslides is an imprecise science. It depends on where a thunderstorm could hit, how hard it would rain, and whether new vegetation has grown back in beforehand to hold the soil in place.”We can’t say the worst is over,” said Andrea Holland-Sears, a Forest Service hydrologist and member of the Mud Flood Task Force.”Storm King still runs mud and rock onto Interstate 70,” said Sears, referring to the 1994 wildfire that burned Storm King Mountain. “We’ll still see some activity for a number of years.”The Mitchell Creek area is a narrow canyon that works its way north from West Glenwood for a couple of miles toward the Flat Tops. Scores of area residents were rousted from their homes through the summer after the Coal Seam Fire blackened Storm King Mountain’s eastern flank in early June, creating extreme flood dangers in parts of West Glenwood.All the evacuation practice paid off the night of Aug. 5, when the first of three severe downpours produced flash floods throughout the Mitchell Creek watershed. There were no injuries, but some homes suffered damage. Mudflows threatened the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery, and oozed through a pasture north of Donegan Road, which runs east and west behind the Glenwood Springs Mall.”Mitchell Creek never left its banks,” Sears said.The areas that produced the most mud and debris were Storm King Mountain, and a hillside less than a quarter mile north of the hatchery.”None of us predicted the type of debris flow we saw in the upper area,” Sears said.To stabilize soils laid bare from the fires, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Natural Resources Conservation Service initiated plans to revegetate hundreds of acres on Storm King to the west, and in the upper Mitchell Creek watershed.The BLM spent $1 million on an aerial hydromulching project over the Mitchell Creek and Red Mountain areas in late August. The blend of mountain brome, steambank wheatgrass, slender wheatgrass, western wheatgrass and annual ryegrass started sprouting soon after it hit the ground.”The grass is already coming in,” said Dan Sokal, planning and environmental coordinator for the BLM’s Glenwood Springs field office. “We had good moisture in September and the first of October. That was very good.”Sokal said some of the seeds haven’t germinated yet, but they will next spring. “It looks good,” he said.Another bright spot is the oakbrush and other natural vegetation that is coming back on its own, proving that the extensive root systems weren’t killed by the wildfire. “That definitely helps,” Sokal said. “Some of the oak has grown two to three feet in height.”The Natural Resource Conservation Service will conduct an aerial revegetation project on private property up Mitchell Creek and Red Mountain on Dec. 3, said service conservationist Dennis Davidson.Local and federal agencies created the Mud Flood Task Force soon after the Coal Seam Fire tore through parts of Glenwood Springs. In quick order, the Task Force was involved with creating a reverse 911 telephone system for alerting residents of flood danger, helping to install federal Remote Automated Weather Stations, mapping out potential mud flows, repairing Mitchell Creek irrigation ditch headgates to reduce flooding dangers, and putting up concrete jersey barriers to divert mud and water away from structures.The barriers, provided by the National Resource Conservation Service to property owners and municipalities, come in 2-by-6-foot sections and weigh about 4,000 pounds each. A 150-yard stretch of barriers extends from Mitchell Creek Road into Allan Bowles’ pasture, just north of Donegan Road. Bowles said he has been talking to the Conservation Service about the barriers, and hopes they will be taken away by next fall.”But there is still the possibility of flooding,” said Bowles, a retired veterinarian. “We’re playing it by ear.”The barriers ran a half-mile along Donegan Road through the summer, but the Task Force had them placed at a 45-degree angle along the road this winter to allow snowplows to pass through.”We’ll bring them back next summer,” Davidson said.Davidson said the Donegan Road barriers will not become a permanent part of the landscape, but could not say when they’ll be removed once and for all.Davidson said other jersey barriers, such as the ones that run along the west side of the West Glenwood Springs Post Office, will be removed next summer.-The Burned Area Emergency Response Team (BAER) was another interagency effort formed to battle flooding after the Coal Seam Fire. It was the BAER Team that placed sandbags in Susan and Don Hakanson’s front yard on Mitchell Creek to keep potential floodwaters from threatening their home and others homes to the south.”I was happy to have the sandbags,” Sue Hakanson said. “If the water jumped the banks, this is a prime spot.”Sears, the hydrologist, said Mitchell Creek waters never reached the sandbags.Hakanson, who has lived for 13 years at the culvert where Mitchell Creek flows under Donegan Road, said BAER also chose her yard and driveway for jersey barrier locations. “We spent the summer climbing over them to get to the mailbox,” she said.Hakanson and her family listened to rocks and debris rumble down Mitchell Creek much of the summer. “It was very noisy at times. Very intense,” she said. “The rushing water and tumbling stones created a grinding noise.”Hakanson said she hasn’t heard much talk from neighbors about next year’s spring runoff, and the flooding problems it may present. “I have a feeling the worst is behind us,” she said.Task Force spokesperson Guy Meyer said it’s hard to forecast what might happen, but the mud flows and floods released a lot of loose material from the hillsides, which, in a way, is good.”Mother Nature gave us three events that cleared out the draws, so the worst may be over,” Meyer said. “But people should still be cautious. They need to maintain a high sense of awareness.”Davidson and Sears are less optimistic that the Mitchell Creek area has seen its last bad debris flow.Assessing next spring’s runoff, Sears said employees at the fish hatchery say spring is when most of the rocks and debris come down Mitchell Creek.”So that leads me to believe there may be the potential for more,” Sears said.Davidson said that even without steep mountain slopes laid bare from wildfire, “debris flows are a natural occurring event from Carbondale to New Castle.”
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