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Polis links lengthy I-70 closure to climate change, readies disaster declaration

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August 2, 2021, 6:32 pm
I-70 through Glenwood Canyon on Monday (CDOT photo).

Gov. Jared Polis on Monday said his office is preparing a state disaster declaration and a request for a federal declaration after torrential rains over the last five days caused massive mudslides that heavily damaged Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon on the western edge of Eagle County. I-70, the main east-west highway in Colorado, may be shut down for weeks.

Polis also linked the unprecedented closure to climate change, with the largest wildfire in the history of the White River National Forest occurring last summer in Glenwood Canyon, when the Grizzly Creek Fire shut down I-70 for a record two weeks. Now monsoon flows are triggering huge mudslides in the burn area.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado addressed climate change and its impacts to the state in terms of floods, mudslides and wildfires in a recent press release on mitigation provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill making its way through Congress.

“From supporting wildfire recovery efforts to investing in carbon capture projects, this legislation is a good initial investment in building the 21st century American infrastructure that this moment demands, and I’m grateful my proposals were included in this bill,Bennet said in a press release (see full release below). “But with wildfires, mudslides, and flash floods tearing through Colorado, it’s clear there’s a lot more we need to do to protect our communities and fortify against natural disasters that have become more severe as a result of climate change.”

Currently, the only way through Glenwood Canyon, which was the last piece in the nation’s interstate highway system, may be by raft on the Colorado River or by train, with Union Pacific saying they may have their tracks back up and running by midweek. In the meantime, freight and passenger rail service through the canyon also remain suspended.

“UP tells us their crews are making progress on clearing the tracks and we’ll get another update later tonight,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told RealVail.com Monday afternoon. “In the meantime, ticket sales remain closed east of Grand Junction and west of Denver.”

Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs daily through the canyon en route from Chicago to California’s Bay Area and back, with stops in Denver, Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. It passes through Dotsero in western Eagle County but does not stop, meaning it’s not a viable local transit alternative when service does resume.

Drone footage of the mudslide damage shows the train tracks, on the opposite side of the Colorado River from I-70, relatively unscathed. There has been growing conversation about I-70 alternatives since problems will clearly persist in Glenwood Canyon.

Here’s Monday’s press release from the office of Gov. Polis:

Today, Governor Jared Polis and administration officials updated the state on the situation in Glenwood Canyon. The Governor was joined by Shoshana Lew, Executive Director, CDOT, Stan Hilkey, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Public Safety, Chief Matthew Packard, Colorado State Patrol. 

“The state, local and federal authorities are working to clear debris from the canyon as quickly and safely as possible. We are also readying a state disaster declaration and a request for a federal declaration with the Biden administration,” said Governor Polis. “Glenwood Canyon is majestic, but its majestic nature makes for challenges when it comes to infrastructure, especially in the face of catastrophic climate change affecting states across the West. We have extensive damage to I-70 in multiple locations in Glenwood Canyon, and the monsoon weather pattern means this threat is ongoing.”

“CDOT is focused on two immediate areas of concern: removing debris so that we can scope the needs for permanent repairs and focusing on sections of the viaduct structures where the parapet and scallop walls have been destroyed,” said CDOT Director Shoshana Lew. “Beyond these immediate priorities CDOT’s operational concerns include establishing safe westbound passage through the canyon for CDOT staff, the Shoshone power plant dam, and Xcel. Reestablishing consistent power will be necessary for CDOT operations staff to resume normal operations of the Hanging Lake Tunnel complex.  Given the extensive damage to some areas, it will be some time before traffic can move in the manner it normally would.” 

Average monthly rainfall for Glenwood Canyon during the month of July is 2.4 inches, but a total 4 inches dropped in just a five day period, causing significant damage. At a news conference from CDOT’s operations center, the Governor showed aerial drone footage showing the extreme damage from the mudslides. 

Governor Polis announced that the state is getting ready to issue the state disaster declaration and preparing the request for a federal declaration under the Stafford Act. 

The Polis administration is taking immediate action to clear the damage and rebuild as soon as it is safely possible. There has been extensive damage to the I-70 viaduct in multiple locations in Glenwood Canyon, and the monsoon weather pattern means this threat will continue.

View the drone footage from Glenwood Canyon, photos, as well as the full press conference. Coloradans can also find the latest updates and information on alternative routes at www.codot.gov/travel/glenwoodcanyon.

Here’s the press release from Bennet’s office on climate change mitigation provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill:

Washington, D.C. – Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet announced that he secured key provisions in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to build climate resilience, support wildfire recovery efforts, invest in water infrastructure, expand Tribal access to clean water, protect the energy grid, and help the United States reach its emissions reduction goals.

“From supporting wildfire recovery efforts to investing in carbon capture projects, this legislation is a good initial investment in building the 21st century American infrastructure that this moment demands, and I’m grateful my proposals were included in this bill,” said Bennet. “But with wildfires, mudslides, and flash floods tearing through Colorado, it’s clear there’s a lot more we need to do to protect our communities and fortify against natural disasters that have become more severe as a result of climate change. We need strong policy frameworks that limit climate pollution across the economy. We should advance incentives to accelerate the deployment of existing and emerging clean energy technologies while supporting manufacturing here at home. And we must make even greater investments in our forests and water infrastructure to build resilience and protect our communities and environment. I look forward to working with my colleagues to make additional investments to cut climate pollution, advance clean energy, and build an economy that delivers opportunity for all.”

Bennet Provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act:

Wildfire Recovery

·         Provides $300 million over five years for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) to address an estimated backlog of $200 million. Bennet has continued to push for increased EWP funding to help Colorado communities recover from wildfires, and earlier this year, Bennet and U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) introduced the MATCH Act to remove hurdles to securing funding through the EWP and help communities act quickly to mitigate damage while protecting their watersheds and infrastructure.

·         Provides $225 million over five years to carry out Burned Area Rehabilitation on National Forest System Land. 

Carbon Capture Private Activity Bonds

·         Includes a proposal consistent with the Carbon Capture Improvement Act, legislation Bennet and U.S. Senator Rob Portman introduced earlier this year, which will make it easier for power plants and industrial facilities to finance the purchase and installation of carbon capture, utilization, and storage equipment, as well as direct air capture projects through the use of tax-exempt private activity bonds.

Orphaned Well Cleanup 

·         Provides $4.7 billion for programs to plug, remediate, and reclaim orphaned wells on Federal, State, and Tribal lands, consistent with provisions in Bennet’sOil and Gas Bonding Reform and Orphaned Well Remediation Act introduced earlier this year. This will reduce methane emissions which will protect our climate, restore wildlife habitat, and create good-paying jobs.

Tribal Access to Water

·         Provides $3.5 billion over five years for the Indian Health Service (IHS) to support planning, design, construction, modernization, improvement, and renovation of water, sewer, and solid waste sanitation facilities in line with Bennet’s Tribal Access to Clean Water Act.

Securing the Energy Grid 

·         Includes Bennet’s Enhancing State Energy Security Planning and Emergency Preparedness Act and the Enhancing Grid Security through Public-Private Partnerships Act,  legislation Bennet introduced to protect the energy grid from cyber-attacks. 

Western Water Infrastructure 

·         In June, Bennet joined his colleagues in calling on Senate leadership to prioritize funding for natural infrastructure restoration, resilience, and reclamation, including major investments in water infrastructure. In March, Bennet and his colleagues urged the Biden Administration to include western water priorities in their infrastructure proposal. Bennet supported several Western water priorities in this package, including:

o    Provide the Bureau of Reclamation with $8.3 billion over the next five years.

o    Fund aging infrastructure such as major rehabilitation and replacement activities.

o    Provide grants to plan and construct small water and groundwater storage projects.

o    Invest $1 billion in water recycling and reuse.

o    Provide $1 billion to fund Rural Water Projects. 

o    Provide $300 million in funding to implement the Colorado Drought Contingency Plan, including $50 million specifically for the Upper Basin.

o    Provide $400 million for waterSMART grants, and $50 million for the Colorado River fish species recovery program.

o    Provide $500 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations to help reduce the project backlog.

In the upcoming reconciliation bill, Bennet supports more robust funding for wildfire mitigation and recovery efforts and water infrastructure. He has introduced the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, which would establish a $60 billion restoration fund to restore forests and watersheds, reduce wildfire risk, improve wildlife habitat, and create millions of good-paying jobs. Bennet also supports implementing strong policy frameworks to limit emissions, such as a clean energy standard and a carbon price across the economy. Bennet has also pushed for the inclusion of tax incentives to accelerate the development and deployment of clean energy technologies, including innovative nascent technologies, as well as those that support American manufacturing.  

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

One Response to Polis links lengthy I-70 closure to climate change, readies disaster declaration

  1. Marty Blotner Reply

    August 3, 2021 at 3:01 pm

    Polis should link it to the knucklehead that started the fire and created the burn scar. https://www.postindependent.com/news/grizzly-creek-fire-update-investigators-officially-determine-blaze-was-human-caused/

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