CDOT sticks with safety protocols during flood threats in Glenwood Canyon
A hot Sunday afternoon that saw temperatures top 90 degrees brought throngs of river enthusiasts to Glenwood Canyon, who were happy to finally have a weekend when they could get on the Colorado River.
Rest areas and recreation facilities along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, including boat put-ins, trails and the paved bike path, have been routinely closed to nonpermit public use this summer during flash flood watches.
While the boat ramps remain open to commercial rafting outfitters, they are not open to the general public during flood watches.
Over the past month, that has been more days than not.
The Colorado Department of Transportation announced Friday that it plans to stay the course with that safety protocol, following the intense flooding that occurred last summer when record rains triggered debris flows from the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar into the Colorado River.
Whenever a storm is imminent and a flash flood warning is issued by the National Weather Service, the canyon closes completely, including to traffic on I-70.
But Sunday was about as bluebird as a clear Colorado day can get — and hot to boot.
Caitlin Brosnan and TJ Tills were visiting for the weekend from Denver, and were happy to learn they could get on the river at the Grizzly Creek Recreation and Rest Area.
“We’re only here for the weekend, and we were fortunate they haven’t had a closure,” Brosnan said as they prepared their paddleboard for a float down to Glenwood Springs.
“We try to make it out here at least once or twice a year, and this is a big part of our trip,” Tills said.
Locals Erica Diemoz and Peter Heitzman were also getting ready at Grizzly Creek for the paddle downstream to Two Rivers Park.
“We’ve been going in at No Name more this summer, because we haven’t been able to put in at Grizzly,” Diemoz said. “I’m excited to get on the water for a little bit longer.”
Heitzman said they double-checked to make sure the Grizzly put-in was open by checking CDOT’s cotrip.org travel alerts website before heading out.
“Sometimes the website has said it’s closed, when it’s actually open,” Heitzman said. “I’m just glad it’s open today.”
CDOT works with the National Weather Service and the U.S. Forest Service to stay on top of the daily and hourly weather forecast, so the agencies can decide when to limit access so that recreationists and motorists don’t get caught in a flood.
CDOT Region 3 Transportation Director Jason Smith said in a Friday news release that the agencies continue to assess the safety protocol in place for Glenwood Canyon and whether any adjustments need to be made.
In early July, CDOT met with the National Weather Service and U.S. Geological Survey to review closure data, weather forecasts, safety incidents in the canyon and other factors, he said.
They determined the current protocol is the most effective at keeping the traveling public safe, Smith said.
“We understand the safety closures of I-70, the rest areas and recreation path are challenging for motorists and local communities,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, they are necessary to protect the traveling public.”
So far during this summer’s monsoon season, there has been little to no flooding in the canyon. But the rainy stretch of the summer isn’t over, and the canyon is still at a high risk for mudslides and debris flows, he said.
When it comes to staying on top of the various closures and whether a flood watch or warning are in effect, it’s best to go straight to the primary source, CDOT Regional Communications Manager Elise Thatcher said.
While the various county emergency alert systems will share closure information, those systems are forwarding information that comes from the National Weather Service and CDOT, she said.
“It’s best to check whatever weather forecasting app you use, because they’re getting the information directly from the National Weather Service,” Thatcher said.
Whenever a closure of the rest areas or I-70 is in effect, that will be posted to cotrip.org. Motorists and anyone planning to venture into the canyon should monitor that site for any changes, she said.
“We are receiving a lot of phone calls from people when those facilities are closed,” Thatcher said. “We hear your frustrations, and if we could change it, we would. But it’s a matter of public safety.”
With so many people using the various recreational amenities in Glenwood Canyon, from the bike path and trails to the river access points, it would be hard to evacuate everyone during an actual flood event, she added.
“There are a lot of people having a lot of different adventures out there, sometimes parking in one place and shuttling to another, and it’s very difficult to track them down in an emergency,” Thatcher said. “That’s part of why we’ve had to keep them closed so often.”
Sunday was a good example.
Colleen Pennington is the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Manager for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District of the White River National Forest.
“On weekends, when the rest areas are open to the public, and even when they’re not, we’re out at the boat ramps tracking both visitor and commercial use,” she said from her post at the Grizzly Creek put-in on Sunday.
As of about 3 p.m., they had counted 115 private river users, just at Grizzly. Another team was at the Shoshone put-in, and another working with H20 Ventures at the Hanging Lake trailhead where access is allowed only by permit.
“It’s something our local commercial outfitters came up with to help prevent overuse of this stretch of river,” Pennington said. “We’re here as a go-between with the public and private users, and it’s a great way to interact with the community and see the different types of use.”
While there have been no major flood events this summer so far, the risk still exists, Thatcher said.
“It’s hard for people to understand that without the flooding like we had last year,” she said. “We just want to emphasize that it’s always good to have a plan B, just in case.”
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