Little Cottonwood Canyon needs pricey repairs after mudslides, with water still flowing over the roadway

(Photo courtesy of John Gleason UDOT) Heavy machinery remove mud and rocks from the road in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.

Snowbird • The Utah Transportation Commission long ago scheduled meetings last week at Snowbird to talk about avalanche control. Thanks to violent storms last week, the discussion Friday turned instead to mudslides.

To reach the meeting, members drove through five places where obstructions from the mudslides on Aug. 9 are still forcing water across the road in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The highway is open, but slow and soggy at points as cars splash through.

That unplanned demonstration proved far more effective than a PowerPoint presentation as Utah Department of Transportation officials gave a heads-up that they will soon request some expensive emergency funding for permanent repairs there.

While cost estimates are not yet finalized, “we’re pushing $1 million just in Little Cottonwood Canyon,” said Bryan Adams, director of UDOT’s Region 2. He adds that UDOT will also seek emergency federal funding for damage around the state from the storms.

“All of our culverts in the canyon are plugged solid with rocks,” he said, sending water over the road in many places. All the pipes must be replaced before winter hits.

UDOT Director Carlos Braceras said, “In my 40 years around the canyon, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Jake Brown, UDOT maintenance director in the canyon, said nine different mudslides buried the road — covering some spots with debris 15 feet deep. It initially trapped 35 people between the different slides.

“It was raining about 3 inches an hour,” he said. “A lot of water came down all at once and caused this mess.”

The slides left massive boulders covering the highway. Brown said many of the granite rocks were “the size of small cars.”

The slides also washed away dirt that had buried a major natural gas pipeline, and left it hanging. “Had it ruptured, we would be in the market for a new road according to Dominion Energy,” Brown said. The line has since been repaired and reburied.

Brown said crews were able to punch through the slides within a day to move key workers and others staying at ski resorts, and to help some guests for scheduled weddings there. “We don’t want to ruin a bride’s day.”

This week, Brown said UDOT has hauled out “thousands of tons of material” dropped by the mudslides and showed a video of damage shot by a UDOT drone.

(Photo courtesy of John Gleason UDOT) Mud and rocks cover the road in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.

He said crews found one mountainside gully — left bare by a mudslide that removed soil, vegetation and boulders — that has a large new spring with water flowing from rocks. It is one of the sources of water going across the road.

“I’m really surprised that we didn’t have any vehicles stuck in these landslides,” Brown said. “We actually fared pretty lucky. There's a lot of debris trails that just stopped short of the road. So it could have been a lot worse.”

Transportation Commission Chairman Naghi Zeenati said he was driving when those violent storms hit.

“My SUV was no longer a car. It was a hovercraft,” he said. He adds that his scared wife held his arm and repeated, “Oh Heavenly Father, save us, save us.”

Adams said UDOT hopes to have emergency contracts for permanent repairs in place soon, and have fixes completed within several weeks.