Utahns can rest assured that the massive mudslide that swept away a half-mile section of highway near Cedar Breaks National Monument is not a signal the state is in for a series of similar disasters, state geologists say.
"It is an isolated incident," said Gary Chris-tenson, senior geologist in applied geology for the state Division of Geological and Mineral Survey, of Monday's slide onto U-14, about eight miles east of Cedar City.Christenson and another state geologist visited the site Wednesday along with an official of the state Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management to assess the hazardous posed by the slide.
Before the trip, Christenson had said that although winter brought heavy snows, last summer's drought left the ground dry enough to absorb much of the moisture that could loosen soil and send rocks tumbling.
For that reason, he said he believes the state is in little danger of experiencing more mudslides as damaging as the one in southern Utah. Nothing he saw at the site changed his mind.
His most immediate concern was whether the tons of soil dumped over the highway and into Coal Creek had dammed the Cedar Canyon waterway. He found that although three small ponds had been formed, water was still flowing.
Crews from the Utah Department of Transportation have been working to clear the creek as well as to figure out how to reopen the highway at least temporarily.
A UDOT spokesman said it would take several months before the debris that tore away the highway completely could be removed safely. Engineers are considering permanently rerouting the highway around the slide area.
Christenson said there are cracks in the mountainside above the highway that could be a sign of more slides to come. Much smaller slides are common along that area of the popular tourist route.
The cracks could mean that the area will remain unstable, Christen-son said. Or not. "We can't tell how soon it will fall," he said of the material above an especially large crack nearest the slide area. "It may never fall."
Still, he said, Monday's slide probably ensures the area against another large slide in the near future. "Now that the slide has occurred, it's probably safer than it was before."
Climbing around and over the mountain was scary, Christenson said, but worth it. "From a geologist's standpoint, it's a beautiful site" he said of the 150 feet or so of sandstone cliff exposed by the slide.