By Jim Stanford on May 18, 2011
Update 8:40 p.m.: WyDOT is waiting for slide to stabilize naturally, then will work 24 hours a day to clear debris. More details after the jump.
(This time-lapse video captures 30 minutes of movement by the slide.)
As a mudslide closes the Snake River Canyon for a fourth day, business owners and local officials are appealing to Gov. Matt Mead to declare a state of emergency and perhaps call in the Wyoming National Guard to clear debris.
Whitewater outfitters are shut down, unable to reach boat ramps in the canyon even if willing to route clients on a lengthy return journey through Idaho. Although the weather isn’t yet conducive to running many trips, outfitters are worried the slide could drag on for weeks and cut into the busy season.
“With the summer season approaching us fast, this slide has the potential to have a massive economic impact on this community and we are going to need all available state resources once a plan of action is determined by WyDOT,” Bud Chatham, owner of Dave Hansen Whitewater, wrote in a letter to the Jackson Town Council. Chatham has urged the town and county to call on the governor to marshal more resources.
Renny MacKay, spokesman for Gov. Mead, said any requests for emergency assistance must come from the local level, starting with Teton and Lincoln county commissioners and the Wyoming Department of Transportation, which has been working to clear the slide. The governor, who was raised in Teton County, is closely monitoring the situation and is aware that other roadways into Jackson Hole could be threatened by additional slides, MacKay said.
“We recognize how serious a concern this is for the people of Jackson and Lincoln County,” MacKay said, citing commuters already squeezed by high gas prices having a lengthier journey. “There’s a real economic factor at play.”
The governor’s office has been in close contact with WyDOT, which has a plan in place to start hauling away debris once conditions permit, MacKay said. “If they need more help, we’re going to try and find it for them.”
State Reps. Jim Roscoe, D-Wilson, and Ruth Ann Petroff, R-Jackson, also have been involved. Petroff said procedures are starting for an emergency declaration.
The Snake River Canyon is one of the most heavily floated waterways in America, with up to 160,000 users each summer. There are eight commercial rafting companies and one kayaking outfitter who operate in the canyon, in addition to 15 permit holders for commercial float fishing. The rafting and fishing industry pumps an estimated $15 million into the local economy each year.
The slide has occurred about 2 miles into the 8-mile whitewater run, near a popular river feature called Taco Hole. While it’s possible rafters could float around the slide, WyDOT has closed the Highway 26/89 at the intersection of Fall Creek Road to the north and at Alpine Junction to the south — putting the main boat ramps at West Table Creek and Sheep Gulch off-limits.
Dave Cernicek, river manager for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, said his agency has asked WyDOT to move the roadblocks closer to the slide (Wolf Creek to the south and Taco Hole to the north), allowing access for public and commercial river users. The river is open in the canyon, although there is some concern about safety in the immediate vicinity of the slide, Cernicek said.
Outfitters can utilize other sections of the river upstream. Although cold weather this week has cooled demand for trips, this typically is a time when companies train guides and practice swiftwater rescue, especially with boaters bracing for a huge runoff.
“If we can’t access the canyon [for training], I’m not going to start running trips at 25,000 cfs,” said Heather Ewing, operator of Barker-Ewing Whitewater, referring to expected high flows. Safety is her main concern. “Money is the least part of this,” she said.
“We’re blessed because this is not typically the busy season. But by the beginning of June, it becomes much more crunch time.”
In 1997, when the Dog Creek Mudslide closed the highway for three weeks, some outfitters floated around the slide, extending their floats to a 16-mile trip. Ewing said she might be willing to do that again, or work with other companies on shuttling clients back to Jackson after running the standard 8-mile trip, if WyDOT moves the roadblocks. Because of the slide, Teton Pass is closed to trailer traffic at peak commuting hours, which would make it difficult for outfitters to haul boats back through Idaho.
Another complication is that because of heavy snow, outfitters have no radio communication in the canyon, Ewing said. A solar-powered transmitter station remains buried, and Ewing has hired a helicopter to ferry a crew to dig out the building and check equipment later this week. “If I don’t have radio communication, I’m not going in that canyon,” Ewing said.
During the 1997 Dog Creek slide, then-Gov. Jim Geringer called in the Wyoming National Guard to clear debris and reopen the highway. Chatham referenced that action in his letter to local officials.
“I was working on the river in 1997 with the Dog Creek Landslide,” he wrote. “It is my recollection that the plan of action by WyDOT was moving very very slowly until it was declared a state of emergency. When the governor declared the emergency, the National Guard showed up and the plan of action accelerated greatly because of the extra man power. Very quickly, we went from having estimates of the road opening in the middle of July/end of August to the road actually opening in the middle of June.”
MacKay, the governor’s spokesman, said Mead is aware of the history, but circumstances are different with this slide, primarily because of the geology and amount of snow yet to melt. There is less room for crews to work on that section of highway than at the Dog Creek site.
River manager Cernicek said his agency is monitoring other unstable areas in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. “Little things are coming down all over the canyon,” he said.
Update: The following is a WyDOT press release, issued this evening:
Because of the volume of mud, rock and water moving across US 26-89 about 24 miles southwest of Jackson, and the speed at which the material is moving, there is no practical way to stop the slide and begin work to reopen the highway until the slide stabilizes naturally.
No retaining structure could hold the slide back because of the amount of water involved, and any attempt to drill horizontally into the moving slide to drain water out would result in broken drainage pipe, WYDOT District Engineer John Eddins said Wednesday.
“The slide is an earth or debris flow, which is soil and rock saturated with water. Containing this type of slide at the rate it is moving would not be safe or practical because it would flow around a structure or berm built for this purpose,” WYDOT Chief Engineering Geologist Jim Coffin said. “Capturing the water feeding into the slide would be also be very difficult because the water flows below and above ground and from different sources on the hillside.”
The slide is moving at a rate of about one foot per minute with an estimated 40,000 cubic yards of material currently covering the highway to depths of up to 40 feet. WYDOT crews began moving material off the highway Saturday, but by 10 p.m. they could no longer keep the road open. Contractors were brought in to assist Sunday, but by Monday it became clear that effort was only further destabilizing the slide above the road.
“For every loader of dirt we moved out, four more would come down,” Eddins said. “No amount of equipment is going to be able to open the road until the slide stops moving.”
Eddins estimates about half of the material in the slide is now either on the road or below it.
WYDOT geologists have put stakes and control points on the slide to monitor its movement, and as soon as it stabilizes, work will begin to clear the highway. WYDOT is putting in place a plan to have contractors work 24 hours a day to remove the material on the road once the slide stabilizes. Once work can begin, current estimates indicate it will take five to six days to reopen the road.
Temperatures and precipitation in the area in the coming days could have a significant effect on the length of time it takes for the slide to stabilize.
“Hopefully it will be stabilized soon and we’ll be able to resume the cleanup and get the highway reopened as soon as we can,” WYDOT Director John Cox said. “But right now we’re at the mercy of the slide’s movement until it stabilizes itself.”
The department has obtained a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to allow it to haul the slide debris to a permanent waste site east of the slide, and is seeking a permit for another site west of the slide. Those waste sites will be reseeded with vegetation, where appropriate, after the cleanup is completed.
WYDOT’s emergency spending policy will allow it to spend up to $1 million on the cleanup with the approval of the Wyoming Transportation Commission.
Gov. Matt Mead’s office has been in conversation with local officials, the Wyoming National Guard and the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security. The governor’s spokesman, Renny MacKay, said the goal is to make sure everyone is aware of the situation and to provide WYDOT and local counties any assistance needed.
“Right now this is not about manpower, it is about geology and engineering,” Eddins said. “When this slide stops moving we can implement our plan of attack.”
Portable electronic message signs have been placed at highway junctions north and south of the slide to alert travelers to the closure ahead.
Northbound traffic on US 26-89 can continue on US 26 into Idaho north of Alpine Junction. That route passes through Irwin and Swan Valley before becoming Idaho Highway 31, which turns to the east through Victor and into Wyoming, where WYO 22 crosses Teton Pass into Jackson. Southbound traffic can reverse that route to detour around the slide. The alternate route adds about 36 miles to the length of the trip.
Vehicles weighing more than 80,000 pounds and all trailers, including boats and campers, will be prohibited on Teton Pass from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. to facilitate daily commuters during the closure.