Partnership Opens Popular Road Closed by Avalanche & Heavy Rain

dirt road washed out by debris from avalanche, snowmelt & heavy rainThe winter of 2019, south central Colorado experienced an unusually large snowpack. The mountains received even more snow in April and May resulting in potentially dangerous conditions….and then it warmed up. Spring rains on top of the melting snow, resulted in a massive melt-off causing rivers and streams to swell causing significant damage to numerous roads that crossed creeks and drainages. The Rio Grande National Forest and neighboring counties worked feverishly to repair numerous road washouts, struggling to keep up with all the issues caused by this massive thaw. Due to the magnitude of these flows, the Rio Grande National Forest realized avalanches and two major washouts that were beyond anyone’s ability to immediately repair.

One of these major washouts took place near the town of Creede, Colorado. The Rio Grande National Forest team received a call one Friday, letting them know that one of the most popular roads directly adjacent to town had some avalanche debris plugging the creek. The team visited the site and noted that the washout would likely get much worse with the continued rain and snow melt. As predicted, by Monday of the following week, more than 300 feet of the road was completely washed out. For safety reasons, the road was immediately closed to the public and remained closed for almost a year.

The road itself—National Forest System Road 502—is a Level 3 road. Level 3 roads are natural surface roads designed for passenger car travel – the level between a paved road and a four-wheel-drive-only accessible road. This road is heavily used in late spring, summer, and fall months by the public for multi-use recreation activities. The Rio Grande National Forest is in a Schedule-A Agreement with Mineral County for yearly maintenance performed on this road. Mineral County has great interest in this road and relies heavily on revenue that is brought in from visitors enjoying the Rio Grande National Forest.

The Rio Grande National Forest team applied for—and received—federal emergency relief funds to help pay for the cost of repairs to this road. The Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads Program, or ERFO Program, was established to assist federal agencies with the repair or reconstruction of tribal transportation facilities, federal lands transportation facilities, and other federally owned roads that are open to public travel, which are found to have suffered serious damage by a natural disaster over a wide area or by a catastrophic failure. The intent of the ERFO program is to pay the unusually heavy expenses for the repair and reconstruction of eligible facilities.

The Rio Grande National Forest team worked with Mineral County and developed a cooperative agreement—in anticipation of ERFO funding—to jointly reconstruct and repair this road to secure the economic and safety benefits provided to the town. In late winter of 2020, the Rio Grande National Forest engineering department drafted plans and designs for this major repair.

The Rio Grande National Forest road crew and Mineral County road and bridge crew teamed up to complete repairs. The first step was to clear all the debris from the main channel of East Willow Creek that had been deposited by the avalanche from the prior winter. Mineral County employed a local contractor to remove all avalanche debris which mainly consisted of trees and large rocks that were blocking the native creek bed that had created the wash. Soon after the creek was flowing back in its original creek bed, the contractor began to remove the avalanche material from the blocked roadway. As run-off season had arrived, it was mutually agreed by all to wait about six weeks till after high waters subsided.

Once the spring run-off had completed and the original creek bed functioned as normal, Rio Grande National Forest and Mineral County personnel began reconstruction to rebuild the road. Mineral County contributed a front-end loader, dump trucks, and a compactor. The Rio Grande National Forest team also furnished an excavator, dump trucks and a D-6 dozer. The team also implemented a Traffic Control Plan for safety. The team loaded, hauled, and embanked one-foot minus material from a nearby designated borrow area to within 18 inches of finished grade. They then started hauling and embanking four-inch minus to get the grade within six inches of final grade. Finally, the road was topped off and compacted with one inch minus road base provided by a Rio Grande National Forest gravel pit, approximately 14 miles away. All the larger rocks that were retrieved from the creek bed were placed between the creek & the road to prevent erosion.

dirt road repaired with bulldozer in background smoothing out road surfacePartnership Leads to Successful Road Restoration & Contributes to Local Economy. Due to the collaborative efforts of the Mineral County and the Rio Grande National Forest team, National Forest System Road 502 was opened on June 25, 2020, after being closed for almost a year. By working collaboratively and leveraging emergency fund sources, this popular road is again open to the public for safe travel as they enjoy our public lands and great outdoors. In addition, opening this road restored a significant economic generator for the town of Creede, Colorado. This is yet another example of Region 2 engineers working with partners and leveraging external fund sources to realize success.