Bailouts and concerns mount in the St. George area, even as flood concerns ease

A police officer said too many adventure seekers underestimate the power of water, even if it’s only a few inches deep.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) A kayaker braves the high and fast flowing Virgin River in Bloomington on Monday, May 1, 2023.

St George • Even as water from the melting snowpack of southwest Utah continues to rush down the Virgin and Santa Clara Rivers, Washington County officials and first responders are pleased that major flooding has not occurred.

“We’ve seen some higher water levels on the river but nothing close to flooding and we don’t expect it either [flooding] This week,” said Jason Bradley, Washington County Emergency Response Officer.

County and local officials in southwest Utah attribute the absence of major flooding to the millions of dollars spent protecting the banks of the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers with armor, removing sandbars and other potential flood-initiating blockages.

Others attribute the St. George area’s luck to the weather, with alternating warm and cool days that have kept snowfall in the mountains in manageable amounts. Whether the area’s luck is due to flood preparedness or the fickle weather gods, St. George resident Lucy Jimenez is grateful.

“With all the rain we’ve had this spring, I thought we were in for big trouble,” she said. “That there were so few problems is a blessing.”

Jordan Clayton, director of the Utah Snow Survey, doesn’t want to comment on which factor was more important in preventing flooding, but he can confirm that most of the near-record-breaking snowpack in the mountains of southwestern Utah has already melted, and the rest should come down soon.

From the near-record-breaking 28.6 inches of snow-water equivalent that existed in the mountains of southwest Utah in mid-April, Clayton said that total has now dropped to about 6.3 inches of snow-water-equivalent, a reduction of about 78 % is equivalent to.

“That’s well below the proportion of snow cover in the northern half of the state, where the [remaining] Snow cover is closer to 45%,” Clayton said, adding that these totals are due to even higher levels in northern Utah.

While concerns about the flooding have subsided, concerns about public safety remain. Of particular concern is the number of people recovering in or near the region’s rivers.

“We’ve got people playing out by the river doing things they shouldn’t be doing…” Santa Clara Mayor Rick Rosenberg recently told the Tribune. “I was traveling on the Santa Clara [River] The other day I saw some little kids, probably 8 or 10 years old, running right to the edge.”

Sergeant. Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Liaison Darrell Cashin agrees with Rosenberg. Its search and rescue teams have assisted in several emergencies fishing people out of fast-moving rivers.

In late April, Cashin said, Washington County and Zion National Park search and rescue teams were conducting rapid rescue training at the national park when they responded to a report that a Canadian tourist had fallen into the Virgin River and been swept downstream.

When teams located the 25-year-old woman, she had no pulse. After cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first responders were able to revive her and transport her to a nearby helipad, where she was flown to the hospital.

The county’s search and rescue team and St. George’s first responders have also teamed up twice in the past month to help people trapped in the Virgin River. One involved a father and his two sons, sitting in a small inflatable boat, getting stuck in a hydraulic flow, a river feature where water cascades over a rock or other obstacle, causing surface water to flow back to the surface obstacle is pulled.

When first responders arrived, the father had swum to shore with one of the boys and was soon able to retrieve his other son and bring him ashore. That same day, county rescuers and St. George firefighters responded to an emergency that left two teenagers trapped in a debris pile in the Virgin River. Cashin said rescuers could have thrown a rope to the boys and got them to safety.

Cashin said too many adventure seekers underestimate the power of water, even when it’s only a few inches deep.

“When the water is running hard, it doesn’t take much [sweep] “You’re screwed,” he said.

With southwest Utah’s spring runoff season almost behind them, search and rescue teams in the St. George region are increasingly focused on the future — the start of the summer monsoon season in July.

“Then we have a whole host of other issues to deal with,” Cashin said.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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