Photo by Marcy StamperThe most serious of three mudslides near Black Canyon sent water, mud, rocks and other debris across Highway 153, blocking the roadway and spilling over the edge of the pavement on the east side of the highway.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
The most serious of three mudslides near Black Canyon sent water, mud, rocks and other debris across Highway 153, blocking the roadway and spilling over the edge of the pavement on the east side of the highway.

WSDOT crews at scene; working to install temporary culvert

Photo by Marcy StamperA front-end loader scooped mud, rocks, tree roots and other debris to divert the flow.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
A front-end loader scooped mud, rocks, tree roots and other debris to divert the flow.

By Marcy Stamper

A major slide of mud and rocks about 1 mile south of Black Canyon closed state Highway 153 early Sunday (March 6) after heavy rain fell overnight. Crews from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) were on scene Sunday morning clearing debris and water from the roadway at three sites.

The most serious slide was about 1 mile south of Black Canyon, where a culvert became plugged and mud and water were cascading across the road and spilling over a steep embankment into the Methow River. There were two smaller slides, one about a mile north of the major damage and the other a little south of it.

Photo by Marcy StamperHeavy equipment cleared mud, rocks, trees and other debris that cascaded down the west side of Highway 153 at the most serious of three mudslides. Most trees and vegetation in the area burned in wildfires during the past two summers, increasing the risk of erosion.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Heavy equipment cleared mud, rocks, trees and other debris that cascaded down the west side of Highway 153 at the most serious of three mudslides. Most trees and vegetation in the area burned in wildfires during the past two summers, increasing the risk of erosion.

WSDOT got a call Sunday morning around 4:30 a.m. and a crew arrived at the scene shortly after that, according to Don Becker, Twisp maintenance supervisor for WSDOT.

The crew had to clear some trees from the roadway when they first arrived, but the major task was to clear enough debris from the road and divert the fast-flowing water and mud to be able to install a temporary culvert, said Wayne Rice, the WSDOT maintenance supervisor at the scene.

Rice had no firm prediction for when Route 153 could be reopened, since road engineers were still assessing the damage and condition of the roadway and culverts at all three slides. Half a dozen crew members were already at the scene, but they were still awaiting more equipment, which was en route as of 11 a.m. Sunday, said Rice.

Photos by Marcy StamperWSDOT crews set up piping for a temporary culvert that will replace the one clogged by the mudslide.

Photos by Marcy Stamper
WSDOT crews set up piping for a temporary culvert that will replace the one clogged by the mudslide.

Road crews will cut the pavement to install the temporary culvert and then backfill the area to reopen the road. The temporary culvert will remain in place until they can unclog the regular culvert, said Rice.

The water, mud and other debris came so fast that the flow plugged the existing culvert, causing it to overtop the road, according to Rice. Rice said they still don’t know if only the inlet was blocked, or if debris had clogged the entire culvert. Rice said they don’t know how high above the road the slide started.

The existing culvert starts about 20 feet upstream of the road on the west slope, said Rice. It angles under the road to its outlet, halfway down the steep slope above the Methow River on the east side of the highway.

Photo by Marcy StamperWater and rocks covered Highway 153 at a small mudslide just north of Black Canyon Road. This slide was one of three mudslides that closed the road after heavy rains Saturday night.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Water and rocks covered Highway 153 at a small mudslide just north of Black Canyon Road. This slide was one of three mudslides that closed the road after heavy rains Saturday night.

Wildfires in the past two summers severely burned the steep slopes around Black Canyon, and most trees there are dead and blackened. “We’ve been very fortunate this year [in terms of mudslides], with the fires and no vegetation,” said Rice. The culvert was able to handle a heavy rain in mid-February, but faster rains deposit more material, he said. The trees that had to be cleared from the roadway were burnt trees that were no longer anchored, said Becker.

Photo by Marcy StamperWater and rocks flowed across Highway 153 just north of Black Canyon Road and spilled over the roadside into the Methow River.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Water and rocks flowed across Highway 153 just north of Black Canyon Road and spilled over the roadside into the Methow River.

Last year a mudslide caused problems in another burned area near Black Canyon when the ground was still frozen and water streamed over the highway, said Rice. That slide was not at an existing drainage and didn’t involve a culvert, he said.

The rain also caused minor problems in Frazer Creek on Highway 20 heading east over the Loup, about 6 miles from the junction with Route 153, said Rice. Rice said he didn’t have reports of water spilling onto that roadway and that crews were “managing the flow to keep the water in where it belongs.”