Highway crews keep wary eye on floodplain

The fall rains have started and officials from two government agencies are keeping a vigilant eye on the flood plain around Highway 35.

The Oregon Department of Transportation and U.S. Forest Service are watching for excessively muddy waters in Newton Creek and the White River that will signal the movement of glacial sediment on the upper slopes of Mt. Hood.

In the fall of 2000, heavy rains sent more than 600,000 cubic yards of material coursing down Newton Creek and the White River. That debris flow washed out a 20-foot span of roadway at the northern end of the White River Bridge and structurally undermined the Newton Creek Bridge and another 20-foot section of pavement in that vicinity.

ODOT used $1 million in federal emergency funds to reopen the passage to Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort just prior to its winter opening. However, Forest Service officials were unsettled about the use of heavy equipment in the bed of the White River, which has been designated as Wild and Scenic and placed under special environmental safeguards. It was the second time in three years that ODOT had to disturb the channel to save the highway and advert danger to travelers. Last year, Kim Titus, head of the Mt. Hood Ranger District, said a more permanent fix was needed because these dredging operations on a regular basis violated the intent of the federal protection.

However, Charlie Sciscione, ODOT district manager, said it will be both difficult and costly to find that fix since Highway 35 is stationary, but waterways in the area roam unpredictably from channel to channel. In fact, ODOT has raised the White River Bridge about 20 feet since the 1970s to accommodate the layers of sediment left across the river's plan during its meandering.

But the federal government has dedicated $200,000 toward a study of possible solutions that could prevent repeated repair costs. Sciscione said that research will try to investigate options such as relocating the highway to nearby forest roads or raising the level of the pavement.

"We are going to try and take a look at all of it and how we can improve the situation," said Sciscione.

Meanwhile, the involved agencies anticipate ongoing problems since warm and dry weather during the past 20 years has caused the glaciers on Mt. Hood to recede, leaving large quantities of loose sediment and rock at their base.

To avert potential flooding if possible, Sciscione has road crews regularly patrolling the area for a quick reaction to possible problems until winter freezes stabilize the ground.

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