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Once Rare, Flash Flooding Hits Hard in Some Utah Cities

Once Rare, Flash Flooding Hits Hard in Some Utah Cities

Posted - Aug. 22, 2004 at 3:15 p.m.



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PROVO, Utah (AP) -- Rita Bowers can remember when folks used to be happy to get rain -- when it was a nice break from a dry spell.

That has all changed.

Once considered a freak occurrence, flash flooding has become much more common on the Wasatch Front, turning basements into gutters and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

"Now every time the clouds start swirling and the rains come, we start calling people. We're just waiting on the edge," said Bowers, of Cedar Valley.

It's been a month since flooding caused an estimated $350,000 in damage to some 32 homes in Cedar Valley, but the cleanup effort continues and the community remains wary.

Residents in Farmington, South Provo and Santaquin can relate.

The prolonged drought has contributed to forest fires, which in turn consume vegetation that would stop debris flow after a heavy downpour.

Even worse, geologists say, is that cities have grown without proper flood planning, plotting developments in areas geologically predisposed to get wet.

"One of the biggest problems is the encroachment of subdivisions into Forest Service land," said Gary Christensen of the Utah Geological Survey. "We're building over alluvial fans where water and debris has flowed for years during rainstorms."

The Eagle View subdivision in South Provo, for example, is built on Buckley's Draw, a natural drainage. Last August, the city spent $180,000 on a 1,600-foot trench to protect the homes below from slides.

So far, the trench is working -- partly because the region has been spared a huge downpour.

Both Christensen and Todd Nielson of the Natural Resources Conservation Service said cities should pay for geological studies to determine the likelihood of flooding before allowing hillside construction.

In cases of bad planning, Christensen said cities could build a debris basin -- essentially a small dam -- to catch run-off above subdivisions or dig a trench to divert water away from homes.

"The city has to be involved and take on that responsibility," he said. "It's not something you put in and forget about. It's a long-term commitment and a lot of cities are not aware of that."

Officials in Cedar Fort are tackling the flooding problem with more storm drains, which should be built by next spring. For now, residents must muck out storm drains with shovels when it rains to keep them from clogging.

However, some floods are so powerful there is little cities can do to stop them, said Brian McInerney, a National Weather Service hydrologist.

"I think the measures these towns are taking are very good, but I don't think you can really stop a heavy debris flow," he said. "You can slow smaller ones with debris fences, but a big one would just rip that out."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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