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Salt Lake City's second-wettest spring could mean trouble for flood prone areas in valley

Salt Lake City's second-wettest spring could mean trouble for flood prone areas in valley

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY— A lush green landscape is not the only result from what officials note is Salt Lake's second wettest spring.

With this winter's above-average snowfalls and the prolonged cold weather, experts say, the delayed snowmelt could catch up to us and cause flooding.

"We do anticipate in some areas for the water to jump out of its bank, but if (the area) hasn’t been developed it is not a problem" said Brian McInerney, senior hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

He noted that historically areas of concern are those that have developed next to a stream and "maybe the stream has been altered to fit a landscaping or something like that."

Areas of primary concern for the Salt Lake Valley, he said, are Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, with runoff into Little Cottonwood Creek potentially creating problems as far downstream as Murray.

Though he did not rule out conditions similar to those that caused parts of Murray to flood in 2010, McInerney said the snowpack levels were different this year.

"When you look at 2010, (flooding) was a very short duration event, it was only three days because the snow was so shallow," he said, noting that shallow snow melts faster and the larger snowbanks of this season will likely slow the pace.

Salt Lake County and Murray officials said they are not taking any chances.

"We’ve got about 1,000 (bags) made right now, plus we’ve dumped piles for people to make their own. If residents get nervous they can go make their own, and if it’s an emergency situation we’ve got some on hand so we can go assist immediately," said Russ Kakala, Murray's street and stormwater superintendent.

He noted that the Wheeler Farm drop structure was build to alleviate overflow and should prevent flooding in residential areas.

Salt Lake County's flood control operations manager, Trevor Swenson, said the chief focus in terms of flood control and prevention is debris removal.

"When the water is running at bank-full anyway, if you get a log in or any sort of yard debris on a culvert, it can very easily jump the banks," he said, adding that most localized flooding is due to debris.

Swenson said the county has been out to creeks, streams and rivers daily to remove debris and encouraged residents to contact the county's flood control department (385-468-6600) with tips on debris buildup or blockages.

The county official said sandbags were delivered to residents near the old Paper Mill up Big Cottonwood Canyon and to some residents near Murray Park. He noted that the county had piles of sandbags available in case of emergency, though he said they were not likely to be used.

"As far as potential flooding or anything unusual, we don’t really have concerns. We are pretty well prepared for the water to come down but I guess we will see what Mother Nature throws at us," Swenson said.

McInerney said several variables could impact the flood risk. A sudden surge in temperature or clear skies would increase runoff, but cloudy skies would help slow the melt. Another wild card are thunderstorms, which he said "could produce road erosion, some bank problems and maybe some bridge abutments."

With weather conditions expected to improve and warmer temperature on the horizon, McInerney stressed the need for increased caution when recreating near the banks of rivers, streams and even small irrigation ditches.

He warned that those bodies of water have been known to cause fatalities, particularly after a long winter when people are anxious to get outdoors and the water is so appealing on a hot day.

"What (people) don’t understand is that this water was snow maybe a day or two ago and it’s incredibly cold; it’s take your breath away cold," he said. The water is "moving so swiftly that you’ve got under a minute to get out before you have hypothermia."

He said "once you get hypothermia, you can’t move your arms and legs and you succumb to getting tossed around like you are in a washing machine."

Matthew McFarland, spokesman for Unified Fire Authority, echoed the warning of dangers in the cold waters.

"My first order of advice is just to avoid those moving bodies of water right now, it’s just too dangerous, they are deceptively powerful," McFarland said.

And if you do see a person or animal fall in and get swept away, McFarland said do not go in after them.

"We have repeatedly seen rescuers who have become secondary victims," he said.

If someone falls in, if available, tell someone else to immediately call 911 so that you can keep your eye on the victim, he said. Then follow them downstream and try to find something to throw to them like a rope or a long stick.

"If you find yourself in that unfortunate situation where somehow you are in that water and you get swept away, try and get your feet downhill (floating feet first) and push your feet to the top of the water."

This, McFarland said, will prevent your feet from getting caught on debris and pinning you down. Your best bet, he said, is to "ride out the current and try to work yourself toward a safe bank or a less rapid part of the river."

Salt Lake's wettest springs:

2011 - 11.73 inches

2019 - 10.89 inches *

1876 - 10.39 inches

1986 - 10.26 inches

1944 - 10.24 inches

Through 6 a.m. May 28


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