US Army Corps of Engineers
Albuquerque District

Santa Clara Canyon Debris Removal Turns Perilous

Public Affairs
Published Sept. 1, 2011
Joseph Lopez and Roger Apodaca, District’s Abiquiu Lake equipment operators, narrowly escaped a flash flood while steadily maneuvering heavy equipment owned by the Corps to help clear debris from a flooded area of Santa Clara Canyon.

Joseph Lopez and Roger Apodaca, District’s Abiquiu Lake equipment operators, narrowly escaped a flash flood while steadily maneuvering heavy equipment owned by the Corps to help clear debris from a flooded area of Santa Clara Canyon.

Abiquiu Lake Operations Manager Dave Dutton visited Santa Clara Canyon to see the progress made by Joseph Lopez and Roger Apodaca, District’s Abiquiu Lake equipment operators, and was astounded.  He said there was absolutely no way the Santa Clara Pueblo would be as far up their canyon without the Corps’ help.

The men had been operating a backhoe and other equipment practically non-stop for nearly two weeks after receiving a request Aug. 6 from the Pueblo, who experienced 17,000 acres of damaged forest when the Las Conchas fire fanned across their land in late July.

The Pueblo said the Corps’ equipment was vitally needed to help clear road debris and muck around and within four man-made water retention ponds, which were now clogged.

Since the fire, even small amounts of rain dislodge large amounts of mud and partially burned trees, requiring the use of heavy machinery to keep the Santa Clara canyon road open to four-wheel vehicles. In the rainy season conditions change suddenly, and Apodaca and Lopez had a close call Aug. 21. 

That Saturday, the men were moving debris when it began to rain about 3:30 p.m. They started to move down the canyon in their equipment to a designated “safe spot,” when the front of Lopez’s backhoe became partially buried by a sudden mudslide. Unable to back out, he abandoned the equipment and tried to head for high ground, but he said it started raining boulders and trees.  Apodaca also abandoned his equipment, entering the water.  

Knee-deep water began to surround Lopez and Apodaca; they clung to a small tree and prayed the tree would stay rooted. Both men said they were up to their necks in water and rocks were battering their legs. They held on in that precarious situation for more than 20 minutes. “I thought it was curtains,” Apodaca said.

When the water started to recede, Lopez was able to get to a radio in Apodaca’s backpack and call for help.   

An Army National Guard helicopter with search and rescue crew was summoned. Lopez and Apodaca made it to a safe spot where the Pueblo’s Dave Ortiz hustled them to a vehicle for warmth, as the helicopter was two hours out and Lopez showed signs of hypothermia. When the helicopter arrived; the men were transported and checked for injuries. They then contacted Dutton to tell him about the flash flood, the rescue and their escape.