Experts Examine Colorado Slide Area Looking for Trigger Clues

June 2, 2014

Scientists are trying to figure out how to monitor a 3-mile-long landslide in western Colorado so that they can warn residents of more slides or flooding in area creeks.

Federal, state and local authorities and scientists held a packed town hall meeting with residents in Collbran, a town about 11 miles north of the site of Sunday’s slide. They urged residents to register for emergency notifications.

Three men are missing after Sunday’s landslide, which in places is a half-mile wide. Authorities are studying the site, on a northern face of Colorado’s Grand Mesa, to understand what triggered the event.

Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey told the meeting no one can yet predict what to expect next, The Daily Sentinel reported Friday. Hilkey said another landslide would likely increase water levels in the already raging Plateau Creek that runs through Collbran but would not produce debris flows into town.

The top of the slide is actively shedding rock, water runoff is creating a pond behind the rockfall, and a couple of waterfalls have been spotted on a cliff at the top of the slide, said Jeff Coe of the U.S. Geological Survey. The pooling water could push the block of rock down or seep underneath and have the same impact, Coe said.

Officials are using helicopters and cameras to monitor movement, and Coe said putting a GPS receiver on the site would strengthen that monitoring. Any warning of potential danger would urge residents to seek higher ground and not attempt to drive through water, said Andrew Martsolf, Mesa County emergency manager.

Light rain fell in the area Friday.

Some residents have questioned whether oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the region played a role.

Rex Baum, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist, said he and others suspect heavy moisture and unstable geology contributed. Colorado Mesa University geology instructor Larry Jones said it would be “extraordinarily unlikely” that energy development did.

“These things have been going on for thousands of years,” Jones said of Grand Mesa slides.

Todd Hartman, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said there are about 41 oil and gas wells at seven locations within a mile radius of the slide but that there hasn’t been hydraulic fracturing there in the past three years.

A memorial service for the missing – Wes Hawkins, Clancy Nichols and Danny Nichols – occurred on Sunday at Plateau Valley High School in Collbran.

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