Road washout a costly one

Eastern Utah county stands to lose millions in tourist dollars

Observers are dwarfed by a massive slide on Mineral Road north of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Mineral Road runs east off Utah Highway 313 just north of the park.

Officials in Utah declared a state of emergency stemming from a thunderstorm that destroyed portions of a road that’s a mainstay for the mountain-biking and river-rafting industry.

The storm on Aug. 19 gouged out large parts of the steep, sharply switchbacked Mineral Road, which gives mountain bikers and river-runners access to the Green River north of Canyonlands National Park in east-central Utah. Mountain bikers have access to the White Rim Road from Mineral Road.

Fixing the road could cost about $2.5 million, according to an estimate by the Bureau of Land Management. Having it closed could cost the Grand County tourism industry as much as $5 million annually.

“I have not been out there to see it, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures,” Darren Vaughan of Tex’s Riverways said. “Seeing it in person would only turn my stomach or make me cry.”

Rafters, kayakers and other river runners use Mineral Road as a put-in at Mineral Bottom for tours through Stillwater Canyon through Canyonlands National Park. It’s also a take-out for runs through Labyrinth Canyon upstream.

The “biggest pinch,” said Theresa Butler, owner of Moab Rafting and Canoe Co., isn’t the loss of the last two months of the rafting season, but the uncertainty the washout created for next year.

Schools and summer camps need to start planning next year’s schedules now, Butler said, “and we can’t do anything. We’re going to get hurt (in 2011.) It’s really scary.”

The storm “eliminated our canoe livery operation, which heretofore was structured as rentals from Green River to Mineral Bottom” Richard Quist of Moqui Mac River Expeditions Inc. said.

Previous storms in his family’s experience over the past 35 years have caused problems on the river, “but there was never a total wipeout like this latest incident has turned out to be,”  Quist said. “Bad river karma.”

It might well have been worse.

The same day that the storm ripped out parts of Mineral Road, another fast-moving storm crashed through Hotchkiss in nearby Colorado, damaging several buildings. Another branch of the storm permanently altered a rapid in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.

The thunderstorm in Utah stranded 29 people, many of whom had to be rescued in the days after the storm, Grand County officials sad. Some vehicles are still there, unable to be moved.

The storm in Utah produced more than 2 inches of rain in less than an hour in the arid eastern Utah desert, the Bureau of Land Management said.

A detention pond and diversion channel overflowed, sending a wave of water over the Mineral Road switchbacks, the BLM said in an analysis.

“This resulted in the complete destruction of four of the road’s switchbacks as well as additional damage to other portions of the road,” the BLM analysis said. “There are currently gaps in the road that are 75 feet deep.”

Mineral Road was built by the Atomic Energy Commission in the early 1950s to provide access to uranium operations along the White Rim and in Mineral Canyon.

Deprived of Mineral Road, rafting companies might have to turn to Spring Canyon Road, which, depending on the perspective, shortens by 13 miles the length of river available for rafting from the town of Green River put-in, or lengthens by 13 miles the run downstream to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

There’s not much in the way of other choices, Vaughan said.

“It’s a horrible road,” Vaughan said. “We know its shortcomings.”

Moqui Mac has used the road “back when we were really young and really stupid,” Quist said. “There’s no way we’re comfortable taking vans” loaded with equipment and customers down the road.

The other option is to go to Moab and launch into the Colorado at Potash, “but that would only exacerbate the already crowded conditions,” Quist said. “We’ve always liked the Green for its fewer number” of rafters and river runners.

The optimal choice, Vaughan said, is to start work on Mineral Road now.

“Everybody wants to see it fixed,” Vaughan said. “There’s no lack of will, no lack of energy, no lack of effort, there’s just a lack of money.”

The Bureau of Land Management is seeking emergency-relief money with Grand County as a co-applicant, county Administrator Melinda Brimhall said. Grand County also is looking for other funding, Brimhall said.

The storm that blew out Mineral Road was one of three consecutive days of storms, Butler said.

Bad as the result of the monsoonal storms of August was, it could have been worse, Butler said.

Mother Nature, “she gave me a black eye,” Butler said. “She didn’t give me a broken neck.”


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