The last 10 days have been nothing short of epic in La Plata County as far as winter goes, with some locations seeing 80 inches of snowfall over the course of the last storm that closed schools for most of the week, kept road crews busy and delivered hours of shoveling opportunities to nearly everyone in the county.
The snow is a great and much-needed gift after several years of minimal accumulation, and especially following last summer’s extreme drought conditions that contributed to the 416 Fire. We are in much better shape as we head into spring, but the snow did not come without cost and some measures of concern to consider.
La Plata County road and bridge crews were tireless heroes over the course of the snowfall, working 12-plus-hour days to keep our thoroughfares clear and safe. This is no small feat and we realize how critical it is to keep the county’s 653 miles of roads passable so that residents and visitors can get to work, medical appointments, grocery stores and other essential services. To do this, our teams worked around the clock for more than a week while snow blanketed the county.
Road crews prioritize their work: Our main county roads are vital to public safety and the smooth flow of traffic, and therefore, receive attention first and more often. These roads include County Roads 240, 501, 141, 210 and 310/318. During winter storms, many of our high-traffic paved roads are plowed and sanded several times a day, as conditions require – and they required it over this series of storms! Gravel roads served by motor graders are generally plowed once per day. Low-volume roads are not plowed until major roadways have been cleared.
Thank you all for your patience with the process of removing feet of snow from the county’s transportation arteries.
There was a significant volume of snow to be managed more locally, too, with many of us on roofs with shovels – and hopefully ropes and harnesses! – contending with the weight burden the storms left on trusses throughout the county. The county Building Department was keeping a close eye on snow loads throughout the county, reminding us all that shoveling does not stop at sidewalks and driveways.
Every inch of snow on a roof near Durango’s elevation weighs 1.5 pounds per square foot; at 30-inch depth, the snow weighs 45 pounds per square foot, or 22.5 tons across a 1,000 square foot roof. At upper elevations, the snow is heavier – approximately 2.5 pounds per inch per square foot. This weight and accumulation on flat and low-pitched roofs approached or exceeded the design load capability of homes and buildings, even those newly constructed. Now that the skies have cleared and the temperatures warmed, the loads are diminished somewhat, but we still encourage you to clear your roofs and protect your structures.
Looking ahead to the warmer months, we are grateful for the snowpack that will feed our thirsty reservoirs and rivers this spring and summer, but we need to be prepared for some challenges as it makes its way down from the high country – particularly through the 416 Fire burn scar.
Last summer, we learned that the fire’s impacts extend beyond the flames and smoke. Lost vegetation and burned soils make for increased risk of flooding and debris flow when rain falls – as we saw in the Animas Valley following the 416 Fire – and snow melt can have the same effect. Our Office of Emergency Management is keeping a close eye on temperatures and conditions in the high country so that we can anticipate runoff and make sure residents below the burn scar are prepared for what might flow downstream.
The best case scenario is consistent cold nighttime temperatures, with warm hours during the day to melt the snow slowly and steadily. If we see warmer temperatures overnight in the high country, the snow melt will expedite, sending more water downstream more quickly than is ideal. Monitoring is essential, as is preparedness, and our staff is staying ahead of the curve. In the next several weeks, we will be placing temperature gauges at the head of drainages feeding into the Hermosa and Animas watersheds; additionally, we will be making sandbags available for folks whose properties might experience heavy runoff – stay tuned for details and locations.
This has been a winter for the ages and the spring ahead promises to be bright and vibrant – perhaps with a few challenges that we will overcome together. In the meantime, happy shoveling!
Julie Westendorff is chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970)382-6219.