As the winter’s record snowpack melts and cascades down from the Rockies, Utah lawmakers set aside millions of dollars to prepare for potentially historic flooding.
The state is among the many in the American West confronting the wet winter’s consequences, with many places ending the season with more than double the 30-year median measurements for snow-water equivalent, federal data shows. State and local officials from eastern California to western Colorado are anticipating runoff in the coming months drenching agricultural fields and battering infrastructure, with water overflowing out of creeks and reservoirs and running through city streets.
The spring’s moderate temperatures have allowed snow to melt gradually and forestalled most danger and damage. But runoff has flooded neighborhoods throughout the Salt Lake City area, opening sinkholes and causing mudslides in residential streets. This week alone, some residents who live on northern Utah’s Ogden River were evacuated, a flooded highway near Spanish Fork Canyon temporarily closed and hay planted along the low plains of the Bear River has been submerged underwater.
The flooding, though potentially damaging, is a welcome change for Utah officials more accustomed to dealing with the region’s worst drought in at least 1,200 years. For Gov. Spencer Cox, it’s an answer to prayers and public calls for divine intervention.
“If this has taught us anything,” Rep. Mike Schultz, a Republican, said of the abnormally wet winter, “it’s that the climate in Utah is truly unpredictable.”
After a special session convened Wednesday to extend Utah’s state of emergency for flooding, lawmakers have allocated a total of $40 million to combat flood damages. The money was drawn from sources including the state’s general fund, transportation fund and funding earmarked for wildfire suppression. Republican Senate President Stuart Adams said he was unsure if the entire lump sum would be needed, but had planned conservatively, with memories of 1983 flooding that coursed through the streets of Salt Lake City still fresh.
Sen. Scott Sandall, a northern Utah Republican, said he was particularly concerned about areas like Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon, where snow remains and no reservoir or dam exists at lower elevation to help manage it.
“We’ve got saturated soils, We’ve got runoff and a few flooding spots that we’ve been worried about,” he said. “A 2-inch rain event across most of the state would change our perspective in an instant. Mother Nature is going to dictate how fast it comes down.”
Other states, including California, are also revising their budgets to confront flooding.
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