whitewater outfitters in limbo; gov mulls emergency

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.

Gov. Matt Mead

“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.

Latest view of the slide, from the Alpine side. Click to enlarge.

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.

Boaters punch through Big Kahuna rapid. This stretch of the Snake is hard to reach now with Highway 26/89 closed from Fall Creek Road to Alpine.

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.

Rafts in the Snake River Canyon, upstream of the whitewater run.

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.

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Posted under Economy, Environment, Sports

11 Comments so far

  1. js May 18, 2011 2:51 pm

    I neglected to mention: Scenic rafting outfitters are open for business in Grand Teton National Park. The river is exciting at this time of year. Barker-Ewing Scenic Trips starts floating Monday. Book your trips today!
    http://barkerewing.com/

  2. js May 18, 2011 2:54 pm

    A source with knowledge of the state-level discussions says the National Guard was not as helpful in 1997 as people seem to think.

    Here’s more insight from Teton County Commission Chairman Ben Ellis:

    “We have been coordinating with WYDOT, both through the commissioners and through our emergency management office. According to [WyDOT District Engineer] John Eddins, they are not in need of more support at this time. John doesn’t think that more manpower or more technical expertise from the national guard will accelerate removal of the slide. He said that the slopes are very unstable and he is working with his engineers to understand the geology and soils better to make sure they have a safe and effective plan. While this appears to be a bigger, more complex slide than 1997, John said WYDOT is better prepared and has access to plenty of resources.”

  3. Tom Terrific May 18, 2011 3:30 pm

    Dave Hansens tour rocks the boat. Kudos!

  4. js May 18, 2011 5:17 pm

    The very latest from WyDOT and Forest Service:

    By late Thursday afternoon, Highway 89 road closures will be moved to about 1/4 mile of each side of the slide and next to convenient turnaround areas. WYDOT will be working 24/7 to get things fixed and traffic moving again. There will be no access to the areas past the gates.

    There will be public meetings at 7 p.m. Friday at Jackson Hole High School and in Alpine on Saturday TBD.

  5. pc May 18, 2011 5:34 pm

    Evidence is building that a catastrophic failure in the strata of the Snake River canyon is imminent. One or more slides on the scale of the Gros Ventre slide. So, when all of Jackson Hole goes under 20 or 30 feet of water I am proposing the depopulation of the Valley and returning it to it’s natural state Designated as JH national park. With all this talk of Jackson being green by it’s residents, what better way to prove it then give it all back to nature? Trailheads to enter the park could be in Pinedale, Victor, and Alpine. Returning this critical habitat back to it’s original inhabitants and natural procceses will be the most unselfish thing ever done in the name of greenyness. Everyone could be given a trailor in Idaho Falls in return for this most unselfish of gestures.

  6. Rob W May 18, 2011 6:05 pm

    Thanks for the updates on this. Pretty amazing to see, really.

    At least the star valley residents have something new to keep them occupied over the two mountain passes: Dead baby jokes.

  7. js May 18, 2011 8:26 pm

    @pc: +1!

    A friend just drove back to town from Utah and couldn’t believe the amount of traffic over Pine Creek and Teton passes. Victor Valley Market was practically cleaned out.

    WyDOT stopped clearing debris Monday and has not resumed, although geologists continue to monitor the site. District Engineer John Eddins said this evening that the agency is encouraged and may be able to start clearing the highway sooner than expected.

  8. dswift May 18, 2011 11:28 pm

    This is not a bug. This is a feature.

    From the looks of it, you can ride this slide. Why not allow boaters and other canyon commuters walk across it? A river trip would be a twofer.

    Jackson Hole Ooze Refuge has a nice ring to it.

  9. dave May 19, 2011 3:25 am

    the video is 30 minutes compressed to 47 seconds. the slide must stop before it can be cleaned up.

  10. Chris May 19, 2011 6:01 pm

    Article focus is on impact to rafters but my thoughts are with commuters. I lived in Alpine for many years, braving the dangerous drive (before the improvements) as well as closures from slides to construction. It’s no small and car killing ordeal for those that live in Star valley who now have to “go around” on there 3+hour daily commute. Did I mention $4 gas?

    Only after do I think about the rafters, tourists, and freight trucks that are affected.

    I like dswift idea. Set up some commuter parking on either side of the slide and people drive to the slide, park and hike to there car on the other side. 40 foot wide road now so it could work.

  11. js May 20, 2011 1:08 am

    The latest press release from WyDOT: http://bit.ly/kMm49p

    They’re growing more optimistic by the day.

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