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Water Warriors part two: Debris flow disasters in Glenwood Canyon

Locations: News Published

By J.P. Frale
Special to The Sopris Sun

Part one of this two-part story can be found online at SoprisSun.com 

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Learning to use new filtration equipment at Glenwood Springs’ Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant (RMWTP) and the Wastewater Treatment Facility was challenging enough. Nevermind the circumstances: a global pandemic affecting staffing and supplies. A historic fire had ripped through Glenwood Canyon and the consequences of the damage that caused to the watershed did not escape the ever-thoughtful planning of Plant Operations Superintendent Warren Hays and Mike Hedrick, chief operator at the RMWTP. Hedrick’s team gained proficiency in operating the new filtration equipment, and their diligence paid off when the biggest event of their careers stepped front and center and slapped them in the face. Not one of them so much as flinched.

Glenwood Canyon Mudslides, July-August 2021
The Water Plant (WP) team uses numerous weather prediction apps and services to monitor patterns to determine staffing and preparedness measures. New to this arsenal is wireless monitoring equipment at the headgate and inside the pre-intake building on No Name Creek. Information is also gathered from newer monitoring equipment on Grizzly Creek. 

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Water Treatment Plant Operator II Eric Hale had just finished his Saturday shift around 3 p.m. on July 17. Already heading home, his pager sounded an alarm triggered at the No Name Cave. Locally, monsoonal weather was predicted, and the new and recently installed equipment sensed the intake building was being stressed by turbid water. Then, additional alarms were triggered, alerting him to unusual conditions developing at the RMWTP, too. 

The number of suspended particles in raw water is measured in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) and the data Hale was receiving was alarmingly high. Normally, readings of 100 NTU were common during heavy flows of spring runoff. He knew that the area was receiving heavy rains and the Glenwood Canyon radar confirmed the moisture laden system had stalled over the Grizzly Creek drainage all the way up to the Flat Tops. 

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Trusting his intuition and years of experience, he drove up the one-lane, rocky No Name Cave access road walled by the high cliffs of the canyon in a downpour of blowing torrential rains. At the cave, the sensing equipment was completely encased in debris made up of mud and wet ash, results of the Grizzly Creek Fire nearly a year prior. The No Name Cave pre-sedimentation basin was inundated by this 500-year rain event. The new equipment performed as designed until this act of nature decided otherwise, and the cave needed to be shut down to avoid further sediment loading of the distribution pipe from the cave tanks into the raw water pipe system under Seventh Street in Glenwood Springs. 

Leanne Miller, with Carollo Engineering, was at home with her family when the call came. Her company’s equipment at the RMWTP was being stressed by a rain event of colossal proportions. She grabbed her backpack, tossed in a calculator and laptop, told her family she’d be back when she could, and joined the WP team that was assembling at the plant. 

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For the next 34 hours, Miller, Hays, Hale, José Diaz, Kathleen Knight, Justin Ziegler and Mike Hoffman, joined later by Hedrick, Horacio Diaz and Jeremy Everding, worked non-stop to perform adjustments to the raw water entering the RMWTP. Tasks like testing and calculations normally done once every week were being done every 15 minutes. Improvements to the lab made as part of the recently completed filtration upgrades became crucial and functioned without fail to aid the weary crew, working at a sustained pace. 

The office became a war room where they performed calculations by hand, writing equations on large dry erase boards filled with sequencing, performance parameters and backup scenarios. At one point, No Name Cave had a high of 4,000 NTU, maxing out the reading range of the equipment, while the RMWTP saw 2,000 NTU. High turbidity season normally sees readings of 100 NTU at No Name Cave and 50 NTU at the RMWTP. It became obvious that a simultaneous system shutdown was the right call. 

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The WP team knew the city would be in good shape for the next 24 hours due to full water tanks, but anything beyond that was questionable. The Roaring Fork Intake, the auxiliary backup for water supply, was not likely to be used because the Frying Pan drainage, 27 miles upstream, was seeing similar monsoonal rains and the resulting mud-laden waters would reach Glenwood Springs in a mere 12 hours. 

This was the big dog: the type of event where you either get tough or go home. Not one member of this combined team faltered. There were one or two times after the crew got their arms around the crisis, and it was waning, that nerves got raw for this bleary-eyed team. But, they were unknowingly writing a standard operating procedure that did not yet exist. They had learned the book science of operating the plant at its designed treatment capacity (up to 8.6 million gallons per day), but there was absolutely nothing documented about how to implement shutdowns of the entire city system, along with necessary water restrictions, when faced with the magnitude of such an event. 

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It is worth noting that not one cup of water left the filtration building that did not meet state-mandated standards for drinking water discharge. Not one. Lab work was done in real time and on-site. This monumental accomplishment was made possible by the sheer willpower of the team, plus their expert operation of the new plant upgrades. 

As the plant choked and sputtered back to life, WP team members were sent home or relieved for a few short hours so they could get food, fresh air and a little rest. On the following Monday, their efforts quickly melded into the usual work week tasks, but all were leery of any forecasts involving precipitation. Even if the RMWTP had clear skies above it, that did not mean another system might not stall over the burn scars in the Glenwood Canyon. In fact, that is exactly what happened next. 

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On Monday, following the initial weekend even the Field Operations Team, consisting of Hoffman, Everding, and H. Diaz, cleaned debris that had gushed into the raw water supply pipe at No Name Cave before the intake could be shut down. The canyon tanks and the pipe got doused with mud and ash when the No Name Cave was overrun by the initial raging debris flow. Cleaning of the pipe began on Monday and it took nearly a full two days for the team to clear approximately three miles of it.

The week following this initial event saw additional mudslides in Glenwood Canyon. As a group, this series of events were described as biblical in proportion. I-70 was again closed while extensive damage was assessed, and removal of earthen debris from the highway began. J. Diaz, H. Diaz and Knight had to navigate a closure spanning more than two weeks. 

The state department of transportation reported removing 440 truckloads of debris at 13 tons per load from the canyon. Debris removal in the Colorado River had to wait. Convoys of utility company trucks populated the canyon, joining everyone involved in the process of getting I-70 open again. The Union Pacific railroad worked on clearing their rail route at numerous points. 

Hoffman got a pass to travel east to his home, past the state patrol troopers guarding the canyon. But each day, each way, was a test of white-knuckle driving, dodging earthen debris, mangled steel and busted pavement that littered both decks of the canyon highway as the monsoon season began to peter out. The WP crew experienced high alert status for mudslides and debris flows again and again until August 14, when the canyon was finally opened with some restrictions and conditions. 

The six members of the WP team — Hays, Hedrick, Hale, J. Diaz, Knight and Ziegler — aided by the three members of the field operations team — Hoffman, H. Diaz and Everding — experienced a once in a lifetime event, first-hand and in living color. They are all quick to remind anyone who asks about the fire and mudslides that they did not act alone, that other people were also working in other capacities in the battle to keep Glenwood Springs safe. No one truly knows when a challenge of this magnitude will come their way, if ever, and most can only give lip service to how they would respond. But these ordinary heroes walk the talk and deserve admiration for their actions and dedication.

Tags: #Glenwood Canyon #J.P. Frale #water #water quality #Water Warriors
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