By Jill Carlson
On March 23, 2003, a large avalanche occurred about one mile west of the Town of Silver Plume. The avalanche brought trees, rock, soil and snow to the valley floor, knocked down overhead utility lines, blocked the I-70 frontage road, damaged the town’s water treatment plant (WTP), and dammed Clear Creek. The dam was breached using explosives before the plant’s electric pump motors were flooded. With damage to the WTP’s chlorine contact tank and building, Silver Plume residents had to boil their tap water for over a month.
The avalanche occurred three days after near-record snowfall. It was triggered by additional snow loading in the starting zone caused by a change in wind direction, and began in a known avalanche path above timberline on Pendleton Mountain. Its unusually large volume and velocity caused it to unexpectedly reach the valley floor, along a path not previously identified as an avalanche chute. Rick Gaubatz, the Town’s water commissioner, counted 110 rings in a spruce tree that was found in the avalanche debris at the damaged WTP, indicating that an avalanche of similar magnitude had not occurred in the immediate area in at least 110 years.