No quick fix for huge landslide
Flow is seen as more troublesome than 1997ís Dog Creek slide.
A landslide covers about 300 feet of Highway 89 in Snake River Canyon Tuesday, dwarfing vehicles and state workers inspecting the mess. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Cara Rank, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
May 18, 2011
A landslide in the Snake River Canyon that blocked Highway 26/89 could take 10 days to clear, but the job may not begin until Friday, a state engineer said Tuesday.
The 2,000-foot slide began creeping onto the road between Hoback Junction and Alpine on Saturday morning and advanced far enough the Wyoming Department of Transportation closed the route later that day. Tons of earth, rock and trees piled onto 300 feet of the highway in a mound 40 feet high that oozed into the Snake River, blocking part of the waterway and forming a new wave.
Tuesday evening, WYDOT district engineer John Eddins said a portion of the slide had slowed, but another portion was moving at a rate of 1 foot per minute.
WYDOT officials estimate that about 35,000 to 40,000 cubic yards of material must be moved. That likely will take about 10 days, Eddins said.
Just when crews can get to the slide is still questionable.
“Friday would be aggressive,” Eddins said. “We’re trying to do what’s best without exacerbating the problem. This is a day-to-day thing.”
The highway links Jackson Hole with a key bedroom and worker community in Lincoln County’s Star Valley, and its closure already is having widespread effects on Teton County’s economy. The route is critical to whitewater river businesses that use it to shuttle customers to and from the popular boating attraction.
Eddins said WYDOT knows just how important the corridor is for valley residents and workers who commute here.
“We’re not going to mess around,” he said.
“This one causes me more concern than the Dog Creek slide in 1997, simply because it keeps coming,” Eddins said.
At the Dog Creek Slide, which disrupted traffic for six weeks, “we could go in there and start moving material out of there without more coming down on the road,” he said. “With this slide, the more material we move, the more comes down. I don’t see an end to it moving.”
The slide began to encroach early Saturday onto the westbound lane of the highway at milepost 127, near a feature on the Snake River called Taco Hole. Jackson maintenance crews worked throughout Saturday to move debris and keep the road open. But by Saturday night, the slide had accelerated.
Officials closed the major commuter route Sunday, before the slide more than tripled in size that night. Efforts to clear debris from the highway stopped Monday until WYDOT geologists can find a solution.
“If we leave it on the road, it kind of helps hold back everything that’s above it,” Eddins said.
Hundreds of man-hours and between $100,000 to $300,000 have already been spent on the problem, Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, said in a statement.
Eddins said options include erecting a drain under the slide to siphon the water out and stop it from moving farther. Or, he said, the agency can use the “brute force” method — try to physically hold back the dirt above the road.
Wallace Ulrich, director and state geologist with Wyoming State Geological Survey, said the slide is not unusual. A Wilson resident with offices in Laramie, he visited the site Monday.
“Every spring, when you have water and temperatures start to rise to where you have lots of days of warm weather, we get lots of slides,” he said. “The moisture tends to get into the clay and expand it, allowing places for [water]. Then we have slides.”
The Dog Creek Slide probably would have kept going had there been more water above it, he said. A small creek above the current slide continues to feed it, he said.
“It’s very alive,” Ulrich said.
Ulrich said he felt the slide moving.
“You can hear these pinging sounds and rocks grinding together,” he said. “It just sort of hums beneath you.”
Talus fields once at the top of the slope have been carried toward the river, and an unknown number of Douglas fir trees — some of them hundreds of years old — have been uprooted, he said.
The debris has slightly changed the river’s course, creating a new wave where there wasn’t one before, he said. The rest of the sediment is getting washed away, Ulrich said.
The area has a history of slides, though it’s hard to tell when the last one occurred, he said.
“There’s many headwalls up there,” he said. “Probably a dozen.”
This is the second landslide in recent weeks.
Across the river, a slide at Roos Creek activated about a week and a half ago, Ulrich said. During the weekend, WYDOT workers located what might be the beginning stages of a slide just above it.
“For a geologist to be able to see this, it’s awfully exciting,” Ulrich said. “But in the back of our heads, this thing is obviously having an enormous effect on the economy of Jackson Hole.”
Travelers are now diverted from Alpine west through Idaho and back over Teton Pass to get to Jackson Hole. The detour turns a 37-mile commute into a 74-mile one, adding two mountain passes and the hilly, curvy stretch around the north shore of Palisades Reservoir. Because of the mountain passes, the extra 37 miles can easily add an hour or more to a commute.
WYDOT is prohibiting trailers on Highway 22 over Teton Pass from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 3 to 6 p.m. to facilitate daily commuters during the canyon closure. This includes vehicles pulling campers, boats or other types of trailers. A weight restriction of 80,000 pounds also is in effect during those hours.
START received money from WYDOT to pay for the additional costs to route its Star Valley buses over Teton Pass. All three runs will resume today, with pickups in Etna at 5:35, 6 and 6:35 a.m.
Afternoon buses will return commuters starting at 12:40 p.m. at Snow King Center. Later pickups will be offered at 4:50 and 5:20 p.m.
The mudslide has been causing some difficulties for valley law enforcement.
Police Chief Todd Smith, who lives in Star Valley, and Sheriff Jim Whalen rented hotel rooms Monday night and were looking into using an unmanned fire station to house some of their employees this week, Smith said Tuesday.
“We have some events going on this week, so we wanted to make sure that we have adequate personnel to respond to issues,” Smith said.
This week, police need to be ready to respond to potential flooding and anti-abortion protests by a church group from Wichita, Kan., Smith said.
Thirteen of the Jackson Police Department’s 32 employees commute from Star Valley, Smith said. At the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, 13 of 64 employees commute from Star Valley.
Smith said having to drive more than two hours through Swan Valley, Idaho, to get to work is difficult for law enforcement personnel. He lives in Star Valley and is staying at a home in Bondurant during the closure.
“Folks who work night shifts can often have sleep deprivation and issues associated with that,” Smith said. “Adding a long drive on top of that — we just want to make sure our folks are getting enough sleep when they’re doing an important job like this.”
Area businesses also reported making other arrangements for employees to stay in Jackson Hole rather than make the extended commute.
“Some people are planning to spend the night here a couple of nights a week,” said Paul Rossolo, maintenance and custodial supervisor for Teton County School District. About half of his 35-person department lives in Lincoln County.
“I think they’re all trying to figure it out,” he said. “There seems to be more carpooling. Yesterday, there was some absenteeism. I think people are just, at this point, trying to get a handle on how long it’s going to be.”
Rossolo said he’s already adjusted some schedules for employees so they can ride to work with spouses. Flexibility will be key, he said.
At Albertsons, Monday night’s delivery was delayed 12 hours as the truck driver waited in Idaho for Teton Pass to open for his rig, store manager Mike Edwards said.
Trucks carrying fresh produce from Salt Lake City were diverted through Pinedale and Hoback to get into Jackson, he said.
Edwards is using employee housing for some of his 20 or so workers who live in Lincoln County. Others are staying in hotels or with friends, he said.
The Lexington at Jackson Hole is offering $69 nightly rates for residents showing residency in Lincoln County for as long as the canyon is closed, said Jacob Franks, a front desk agent.
“We love our community,” he said. “We know that it can be very strenuous going over Pine Creek Pass and Teton Pass. It just adds a lot of extra time.”
Monday saw at least five walk-ins seeking to take advantage of the deal, he said.
Recreationists also began to realize Tuesday the closure could impact summer business if the road doesn’t reopen by late June.
WYDOT is considering issuing permits for kayakers, bear hunters and other recreation users to access the road down to the slide area, Gingery said in his statement. Kayakers could take out at Taco Hole, just upstream of the slide, instead of running the usual stretch that goes past the slide and farther downstream.
Until then, there’s few worries about boaters trying to use the river when the highway is closed, said David Cernicek, river manager for the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
With the road closed from Fall Creek Road to near Alpine, shuttling cars would be cumbersome and river boat ramps inaccessible.
“It would be a very difficult place to get on the river,” he said.
— Sarah Reese and Johanna Love contributed to this report