Weak rocks, steep slopes and a much wetter than normal winter tend to lubricate things. There was a big failure and everything went.
CEDAR CITY — A massive landslide that took out a stretch of state Route 14 in Cedar Canyon will take months and millions of dollars to remove — tasking state transportation officials with finding a home for up to three million cubic yards of debris and repairing the shattered roadway.
"As landslides go, it is a very, very big landslide that came down in area that has been problematic for years and years and years," said Bill Lund, senior scientist with the Utah Geological Survey.
Discovered in the early morning hours of Oct. 8, the landslide did not cause any injuries or fatalities, but it is presenting a monumental headache for those who rely on the 49-mile route for passage through the canyon.
"It's a principal thoroughfare that connects to U.S. 89," said Lund, adding that residents who occupy seasonal cabins at Duck Creek are having to take long detours. The landslide has also choked off direct access to Southern Utah University's Mountain Center, which is a 6,000-square foot retreat and convention center hosting a variety of events.
Kim Roeder, executive director of university's event services, said she is uncertain if the Mountain Center will remain open through the winter because of the landslide. While summer constitutes the facility's busiest time, the holiday season is second, with many family parties and university events scheduled during that time. The center is also part of a large complex operated by the university as part of its agricultural and natural resources programs.
Patrons of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which ended Saturday, were forced to take long detours if they had been using the state highway that drops directly into Cedar City. Alternatives are state Route 143 out of Panguitch that goes to Parowan north of Cedar City or state Route 9, much farther south, that goes through Zion National Park around La Verkin.
The Utah Department of Transportation has conducted aerial surveys to map the extent of damage and are in the midst of an analysis on what it will take to remove the material.
A preliminary timeline puts re-opening the road in June, said UDOT's senior geologist Dave Fadling.
"It is a lot of material to move," he said. "We want to make sure we are not going to endanger anyone and that it is safe for the public."
Lund said the slide came down in an area that has been extremely active for slide activity since 1949.
Soft clay soil combined with delicate sandstone rock formations combine to form unstable geologic conditions that Lund says only become worse when the winter and spring seasons are extremely wet, as experienced this past water year.
"Weak rocks, steep slopes and a much wetter than normal winter tend to lubricate things. There was a big failure and everything went."
Similar failures in that mile stretch of road — about eight miles up the canyon from Cedar City — happened most recently in 1989 with a big landslide that deposited two million cubic yards of debris. The highway was closed for a number of months and required $3.8 million in repairs, Lund said.
Ten years later, the area had an extensive rock fall that sent 50,000 cubic yards of material onto the roadway.
"The slope is failing in sections, slowly progressing to the east," Lund said, adding there are usually 30 or so landslides up there a year.
Fadling said because of frequent slide activity, the agency has heavy equipment permanently parked up the canyon to respond more quickly to roadway hazards.
"The entire canyon is notorious for other types of landslides and debris flows and such."
Fadling has visited the site to get a better look at it. "When you are standing on top of it you feel pretty small," he said.
The most recent landslide is about 1,200 feet wide and may have, like the 1989 landslide, displaced or damaged an abandoned coal mine in the area. Lund said it will take time to learn the extent of any damage to the coal mine.
Lund, who has worked for the Utah Geological Survey for 33 years, has climbed to the top of the canyon to get a bird's eye view of the geologic hazard in part to better understand what, if anything, can be done in the future to fix this problem area.
For Lund, the slide is fascinating to study.
"We love them. What do you think we do this for? The Utah Geological Survey has an entire program that does nothing but study and help mitigate geologic hazards, looking at problem soils and rock falls. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. The nice part of this (one) is nobody got hurt."