Runoff, seepage and erosion threaten Highway 40

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Last spring, as Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Bob McVay was taking his dog for a walk, he discovered that the river bank along Park Street was sloughing and disappearing into the Colorado River. 

After nearly a year, his worries have not subsided as the Town of Hot Sulphur Springs (TOHSS) has reached out to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Grand County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), Department of Local Affairs, Representative KC Becker and Senator Randy Baumgardner. 

In fact, if anything, Mayor McVay’s worries may have increased. “What we are trying to be is a little proactive,” he explains, “it would be a terrible thing if someone gets hurt. I remember when we had 20 foot of bank along the highway and now it is not there. If we get a head start on this, we could save someone.”

TOHSS has resigned itself to the fact that it could lose the portion of Park Street along the river, and in a letter to the BOCC, the TOHSS outlined its need to “develop a conceptual design for better controlling the storm water runoff and erosion conditions… The conceptual project would need to deal with both the topside erosion that is occurring when soils become supersaturated and slough off into the river as well as with the undercutting action of the Colorado River.”

TOHSS received initial support from the CDOT to modify and eliminate the Y intersection where Park Street meets Highway 40.  The paved right-turn access was removed last fall with the hope that reducing runoff from that paved approach, and re-directing its flow, would help alleviate some of the surface erosion that could be contributing to bank instability.

According to McVay, “While this provided a band-aid to part of the problem, a comprehensive plan needs to be developed for long term storm water and erosion control that include a solution to highway runoff. The current situation is such that the continued erosion will compromise Park Street, negatively impact water quality by increased runoff, and eventually  impact Highway 40 if left unchecked.”

Ed Duerr, Engineering Consultant with the TOHSS agrees, “Down river outside of the town boundaries we have additional concerns. We could lose Park Street, and it could continue down Highway 40.  There is a broader concern… that this is not the only spot along the river this could be happening.” He states the combined effect of runoff and seepage from the top and the erosion from the bottom from the Colorado River is happening concurrently.

District 3 Commissioner Kris Manguso and the representative for the transportation planning region, echoed the sentiments of both Duerr and McVay. “There is a broader issue and the beginning of a much larger problem. When we discuss runoff and seepage, we are beginning to discuss water quality.  We also have rock fall throughout Byers Canyon that have already hit cars this year and caused accidents. The rock fall is a regular occurrence.”

Lee Staab, Grand County Manager and a Structural Engineer, stated that he had walked the area a few months ago after this was brought to his attention by Mayor McVay.   “It appears the erosion problem in the area along Highway 40 in Hot Sulphur Springs has been going on for some period of time.  This area has significant erosion issues and needs to not only be looked at from an erosion stand point…but also the safety aspect for everyone who passes along there. It may be a matter of time before a portion of Highway 40, in the Hot Sulphur Springs area, may erode into the Colorado River. Engineering analysis and possible mitigation actions needs to be taken now because that is the only access and egress for many citizens in Grand County.”

David Eller, CDOT director of transportation in Region 3, responded to BOCC concerns in February in a letter.  He writes, “We met on site with the Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor, Town Staff, and the town’s wastewater consultant Ed Duerr. We reviewed their concerns adjacent to a local street (Park St.) approximately 150’ from the edge of WB US 40. CDOT feels that the current state of bank erosion and scour is not currently a high risk for US 40 (photo attached). However, we did agree with the town staff that the bank erosion poses a threat to the local street (Park St.), but it is unclear how immediate that threat is as it appears the scour has occurred over a number of years.”

Eller continued, “At this time, CDOT cannot fund any contracted activity outside of right-of-way, but could help guide local staff in how to scope and deliver a project. We understand that funding this project could be difficult for a small municipality but getting a project well defined, with a clear cost estimate, would be a good first step in seeking funding through other sources. CDOT may not be the expert in pursuing special grant type funding that best fits this need, but we will be more than willing to try and help facilitate that process.”

The TOHSS does not have the funds to begin the initial studies and to implement the plan.  TOHSS is considered a disadvantaged community and does not have the money to address its current concerns.  In the past, the TOHSS has taken advantage of low interest loans and grants to meet the regulatory needs of constituents to improve water quality and to mediate water flow in the river. 

The Town has little financial reserves because of recent water and sewer projects, the loan debt it is currently carrying, and the additional projects they are committed to within the water and sewer departments. In a letter to the BOCC, the Town cited this issue as being beyond their control and asked for a collaborative approach to its solution.  And it seems there may be many stakeholders, in his letter, Eller commented that Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the United States Army Corps of Engineers would be additional stakeholders. 

District 2 Commissioner Merrit Linke commented, “Ultimately, this may be similar to Highway 9 with many entities assuming the burden of the debt.” However, Linke did emphasize that the County was not financially responsible for highways and currently is navigating how to pave and maintain the county’s roads.  Linke mentioned Club 20 may help. Club 20, an organization founded in the 1950s to advocate for western slope counties to receive highway funding.

Eller also assures the TOHSS and the County that disaster fund relief could be used.  He stated in the letter, “In the event of severe flooding in the future that directly impacts US 40, CDOT would typically respond via an Emergency Project to assure stability. If necessary this could include a request for Emergency Funding to respond with any repairs adjacent to the highway to ensure US 40 remains operational as an important corridor with no suitable alternate route.”

McVay emphasizes that Highway 40 is the only corridor that is navigable across Grand County year round and when Highway 40 is closed it impacts the whole county.  “What it will take?” he questions.