Flood projects should
 ease U.S. 24 closures west of Colorado Springs

By: matt steiner matt.steiner@gazette.com
September 2, 2014 Updated: September 2, 2014 at 9:44 am

After spending more than $10 million during the last two years on flash-flood control along Ute Pass, the Colorado Department of Transportation hopes that steps taken between now and the end of 2014 will make potential closures of U.S. 24 less stressful.

Karen Rowe, a CDOT regional transportation director, shared her department's updates for U.S. 24 projects at the Aug. 26 El Paso County Board of Commissioners meeting.

"We've really taken a lot of steps so the closures should be relaxed by next season," Rowe said.

According to Rowe, after Sept. 30 CDOT will begin evaluating the highway closure procedures that have been used the last two years. The agency also will conduct a drainage analysis from Manitou Springs to the Teller County line and begin installing closure gates on U.S. 24 in December.

El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who represents the area of the county along Ute Pass, told Rowe and CDOT Chief Operating Officer Scot Cuthbertson on Tuesday that the biggest complaint she hears concerns communication when U.S. 24 closes and reopens.

The transportation director said that concern has already been discussed and will be evaluated further. During her presentation, Rowe pointed to the CDOT website at coloradodot.info/projects/us24utepass where people can register for email and text alerts for up-to-the-minute closures along the main artery that connects El Paso and Teller counties. The website also encourages people to follow CDOT on Facebook and Twitter.

In December CDOT will begin installing manual gates at "critical closure points" along Ute Pass. The project will cost about $1 million, Rowe said. The department also plans to put more cameras and gauges in the mountains high above U.S. 24. One camera and multiple rainfall and stream gauges have already been placed in Waldo Canyon and along Fountain Creek to warn officials when closures are needed or flash floods could be coming.

CDOT has spent more than $10 million between Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls since the Waldo Canyon fire scorched more than 18,000 acres of forest north of U.S. 24 in June 2012,

Among the completed projects: a large $3 million box culvert built under the highway at the mouth of Waldo Canyon; a $2 million reconstruction of the channel that runs through the Rainbow Falls Recreation Area on the western edge of Manitou Springs; $2.5 million in slope repair above the highway; and several debris retention basins in Waldo Canyon, Sand Gulch, Wellington Gulch and Fern Gulch.

Since May CDOT closed the highway eight times.

Crews had to clean up debris after one significant flow that poured out of the Fern Gulch watershed near Cascade.

In 2013, U.S. 24 was closed 17 times, including during three flash floods that poured mud, large rocks and other debris onto the highway near Manitou Springs. Several homes were destroyed in Manitou Springs during one event and a Divide man died in mudflows on U.S. 24 in another.

Rowe and Cuthbertson said closures will continue as precautionary measures when the National Weather Service issues a flash-flood warning over the burn area, when two of the Waldo Canyon rain gauges measure a quarter inch of rainfall, or when debris and mud begin to cover the highway.

"The safety of the traveling public has to come first," Cuthbertson said.

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