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Mudslides In Colorado's Glenwood Canyon Temporarily Close Part Of I-70

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As wildfires rage in some Western states, it's damage from last year's fires that are a big problem in Colorado. Mudslides have been closing a section of Interstate 70 there during the summer. Yesterday, Governor Jared Polis said the latest slides could keep the vital highway closed for weeks. Colorado Public Radio's Nathaniel Minor reports.

NATHANIEL MINOR, BYLINE: The closed section of I-70 west of the Continental Divide is stunning. It's in a steep, narrow canyon with 1,300-foot-high walls. It's so narrow the highway has to be suspended above the Colorado River. But geologist Paul Santi with the Colorado School of Mines says it also means the road is vulnerable to flash floods and mudslides, which can happen in an instant.

PAUL SANTI: It's the kind of thing that eyewitnesses have said they've seen the creek change color, for instance. And then seconds later, maybe a couple of minutes later, here comes this mudslide.

MINOR: So heavy rains last week were a disaster, says Colorado Governor Jared Polis.

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JARED POLIS: The average monthly rainfall for the entire month of July in Glenwood Canyon is 2.4 inches. We had nearly twice that rainfall over five days.

MINOR: Because wildfire last year burned up the vegetation that helps soak up water, that rain resulted in 10 feet of mud covering the road on Thursday. Rocks took out highway walls. About 100 people were stuck in their cars overnight. The debris diverted the Colorado River, and now the road is underwater in some places.

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POLIS: I can assure everyone that the Colorado Department of Transportation is doing everything in our power to reopen as quickly as possible.

MINOR: Polis says, best-case scenario, in a 15-mile section, one lane in either direction could be open in a few days, but more likely, it'll be closed for weeks. That could hurt local economies and families in the middle of vacations. Tens of thousands of cars use the road every day. And in these mountains, the shortest detour over good roads adds at least 2 1/2 hours. Climate change could make disruptive closures like this more common. Shoshana Lew, head of the State Department of Transportation, says they're trying to figure out how to repair the road so it's more resilient to future disasters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHOSHANA LEW: Places like Glenwood Canyon are inherently fragile because of the nature of why they're special. And, you know, respecting the landscape as we help it heal is something that I think is on all of our minds as we deal with these very deeply jarring and impactful events.

MINOR: New vegetation will regrow on the canyon walls over the next few years, and experts say that will help limit slides. But more rain before then could do even more damage. So many Coloradans who used to hope for a drought-breaking rain are now crossing their fingers for clear skies.

For NPR News, I'm Nathaniel Minor in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL COLLECTIVE'S "SAND THAT MOVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.