A popular southern Utah tourist route near Cedar Breaks National Monument will be closed for months while a portion of a state highway destroyed by a mudslide is either rebuilt or realigned.
Aerial photographs were ordered Tuesday by the Utah Department of Transportation of the half-mile section of U-14 that was torn away by a Monday morning slide.Besides destroying part of the two-lane highway, the slide dumped millions of tons of debris into Coal Creek. A UDOT grader, believed to have been swept into the creek, did not fall that far and may be salvageable.
The severity of the damage and the fact that the area is still unstable has UDOT engineers seriously considering abandoning the alignment. This is the second time in two years that the road has been closed due to slides.
In September 1987, UDOT closed access to the highway for about two weeks because instability in the area had exposed huge boulders that threatened to roll down the mountainside, UDOT spokesman Kim Morris said.
While UDOT engineers are deciding what to do, temporary access will be restored to the area of the highway obliterated by the slide, which is located about 8 miles east of Cedar City.
Even that will take several months as authorities determine how to remove the tons of debris on the road without disturbing the unstable rocks and soil still clinging to the mountainside.
"It'll be perfectly safe," Morris said of allowing traffic back on the highway, adding that UDOT maintenance crews will have to exert extra effort to keep the area clear.
The temporary section of highway may be just a dirt road, "to get us through the summer," Morris said. The road is heavily traveled in the warmer months by southern Utah tourists, serving as a major thoroughfare between I-15 and U.S. 89.
In the meantime, UDOT crews are scheduled to open U-148 Thursday. The road leads into the south end of Cedar Breaks and is usually one of the last roads to reopen in the spring because of heavy snowfalls. Traffic using U-148 will have access to I-15 from U.S. 89 via U-143.
The UDOT crews at the scene of the slide were to be joined Tuesday by a team of state geologists, who were hoping to confirm that the slide is an isolated incident rather than a sign that slopes throughout Utah were made unusually unstable by last winter's heavy snowfall.
"We don't think there's anything to panic about," said Gary Christenson, a senior geologist in applied geology with the state Division of Geological and Mineral Survey.
Although there has been some concern that Utah could be headed for a series of slides similar to those in 1983 and 1984, Christenson said last summer's drought left the ground dry enough to absorb much of the moisture.
Here's the average number of vehicles that use U-14 daily, by month.