How Washington County plans to avoid a repeat of the 2005 floods in St. George

St George • Even with temperatures in southwestern Utah expected to reach the mid-90s this weekend, Santa Clara Mayor Rick Rosenberg is relatively confident his and other Washington County cities will avoid the major flooding that is expected in some areas along the Wasatch Front.

Rosenberg explains why he remains confident and sums it up in one word: experience.

“That’s because we got some serious butt kicking in 2005,” said the mayor, who happens to be a flood protection engineer. “That was a wake-up call. If [northern Utah] If a federally declared disaster had destroyed 25 homes up there like we did down here, they could have a very different situation.

Rosenberg is referring to the January 2005 floods that tumbled streams of muddy water down the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers, inundating reservoirs, destroying bridges, eroding banks and toppling homes.

The damage caused by the 2005 flood was devastating. Overall, the damage totaled more than $200 million — about $140 million to infrastructure and another $85 million to private property, according to the Utah Division of Emergency Management.

Rather than risk a repeat, Rosenberg – who was on the city council at the time – and officials in other cities went to work. Most of the homes in the area that fell into the river were not allowed to be rebuilt, and St. George bought three or four of the most vulnerable lots along the Santa Clara River within its community lines.

St. George and Santa Clara, the cities hardest hit by flooding, spent millions of dollars extensively armoring the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers. Workers there have lined long riverbanks with large boulders of lava and other rock to prevent them from eroding, which caused much of the major damage in the historic 2005 flood.

“Between 2006 and 2014 we completed over 10 bank armor projects,” said Jay Sandberg, St. George’s City Engineer. “And that armor [process] is in progress.”

Workers at St. George have also armored sections of the Sand Hollow and Fort Pearce wash works, the latter a major tributary that empties into the Virgin River. Another ongoing effort is dredging rivers in the area to remove sand bars, clogs from felled trees, and problematic vegetation that can contribute to flooding.

Lately the city has focused on repairing the damage a severe storm caused to Southgate Golf Club a month ago, parts of which run parallel to Dixie Drive. This work included repairing damage to rock faces, removing sandbars and vegetation, and dredging the river.

“We haven’t had any real flooding problems with houses or businesses or anything like that,” said St. George’s public works director Cameron Cutler. “We just have to pay close attention and keep cleaning up the rivers to avoid problems because of the wet.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Santa Clara River cuts a wide swath through the town of Gunlock in January 2005. The road leading to Gunlock had been closed in both directions when the river destroyed the bridges on the north and south sides of the town.

To fund ongoing flood control efforts, St. George, Santa Clara, Washington City and the county formed the Washington County Flood Control Authority in 2014. Each water user in the three cities is estimated to pay $1.50 a month for flood control. The county provides administrative support, according to Rosenberg, who serves as an advisor to the agency.

Sandberg estimates that money provided by the agency for flood protection to date is about $5 million — money that has been used to raise another $15 million or more in federal funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to obtain.

Prepare drain

With flood control preparations underway since 2005 and subsequent, less damaging floods, county and township officials say they are confident they can weather the sustained above-average snowmelt pouring into rivers this spring. That could change if there is another atmospheric river-like storm, a sudden rise in temperature, or a warm rain on the snowpack that could sweep it down slopes and rivers all at once.

Fortunately, there are no storms or major temperature spikes in the 10-day forecast. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center predicts no major flooding in southwest Utah’s rivers.

Another confidence-boosting factor is that snowpack in southwest Utah, while high, is not at record levels. Jordan Clayton, director of the Utah Snow Survey, said snowpack in southwestern Utah peaked a few weeks ago at 28.6 inches of snow-water equivalent, well below the 32.7 inches recorded in 1983 but higher than the 28.1 inches recorded in the 2005 flood year.

By the end of last week, Clayton said, 7.5 inches of the 28.6 inches — an average of all SNOTEL snow gauges in the area — have melted.

“It’s coming fast, but from a flood control perspective, it was manageable,” Clayton said.

Self-confident as they are, the flood protection officials are careful not to sound arrogant. For example, the county preemptively declared a state of emergency last week, expediting the process of obtaining state and federal funds should the worst happen.

Washington County emergency response chief Jason Bradley said his office also deploys specialized response trailers and Conex-like boxes containing sandbags, shovels and other supplies at strategic locations in the area.

Still, Bradley conceded, the county has been lucky with the weather, which has alternated warm and cooler days and allowed snowmelt to come down in an orderly fashion.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we maintain this pattern,” he said. “If we can…I think we’ll be fine.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Destroyed homes along the Santa Clara River in St. George after flooding in January 2005.

For their part, Cutler and Sandberg maintain a list of contractors they can call on at short notice should flooding problems arise. In nearby Santa Clara, officials have a flood response contingency plan that they train on regularly.

“There’s a call log so we can let you know. I also have a list of all property owners along the [Santa Clara] river on my phone and can text them,” the mayor said.

Aside from preparation, Rosenberg said there’s no substitute for experience. Besides himself, he noted that his city manager and director of public works are all battle-hardened veterans who have seen floods before. He said the same is true of many of the old farmers, ranchers and other landowners who lived along the river.

If the worst happens, the mayor said they all know the drill and what to do.

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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