In 1983, Salt Lake City became a river. With Utah's snowpack, could floods be next?
Ted Wilson still remembers getting a call from Salt Lake City Council member Sydney Fonnesbeck, telling him City Creek was flowing much higher than usual.
It was the Sunday before Memorial Day in 1983. Then the mayor of Salt Lake City, Wilson said the call was one he was expecting after a heavy, snowy winter and a colder spring than normal. That weekend, however, temperatures were on the rise, reaching into the 90s.
Wilson called the city’s water department, which quickly went to check the creek’s water levels.
“They called back and said, ‘We have increasing volume in the stream,’” Wilson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We had about 65 cubic feet (of water) per second, and that’s sort of the normal progression of the river. In this case, it was up to 340.”
Salt Lake City was about to flood.
The runoff turned downtown Salt Lake City into a river, with people kayaking down the flooded streets and a few pulling out their fishing rods to try their luck. Homes were damaged and backyards were washed out, but Salt Lake City managed to avoid a wide-scale catastrophe thanks to quick action from residents.
With the Wasatch Front’s above-average snowpack this year, memories of the 1983 flooding around Utah are resurfacing, with many hoping this spring won’t be another round of seeing State Street become a river.
Depending on the area of Utah, snowpack totals range from 120% to 203% of the median marks between 1991 and 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In other words, Utah is having one of its best years for snowpack in recent memory, with some areas of the state, like the Lower Sevier basin, seeing up to double the amount of snowfall than it would in an average year.
Water managers across the state are happy, but the high snow totals in the mountains always brings the possibility of flooding, despite previous years of statewide drought conditions.
A heavy winter and a sudden, warm spring
Bart Barker knew flooding was not just a possibility but a likelihood.
In 1983, he was a Salt Lake County commissioner — before the County Council was established in 2001 — who oversaw the county’s public works department. The previous September featured several consecutive days of rain, he said, which caused some flooding in areas of the city with aging storm drains. That sort of precipitation continued for months.
“All winter long, the rain and the snow were heavy,” Barker told The Tribune. “Really extraordinary levels.”
As of Feb. 15, Utah’s 2023 snowpack levels are even higher than the snowpack levels on the same day in 1983, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, precipitation kept falling in 1983, which means snowy weather will need to keep up over the next few months for this year’s totals to match those of 40 years ago.
By December, the county started stocking up on sandbags, and Barker was meeting weekly with public works. They hoped the spring runoff would have normal cycles, as spring weather typically varies between warm temperatures to melt off snowpack and cooler temperatures that refreeze snow in the mountains. But that hope was short-lived in 1983.
“It just stayed wet and stayed cold, right up to Memorial Day weekend,” Barker said. Then it got hot.
When he heard about the creek, Wilson hit the phones and started dialing, hoping to get as many people downtown as possible to fill and stack sandbags along either side of State Street. Wilson said, “All we could really do is contain it, we couldn’t move it.”
One of those calls was to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He hoped to convince church leaders to have congregants leave Sunday services and head downtown to build up either side of the busy roadway.
It worked, and it wasn’t just Mormons who showed up downtown.
“We called everybody, no matter what the religion,” Wilson said. “We were using people to test their Christianity. And it worked. They came down.”
Barker recalled tens of thousands of people heading to Washington Square to help fill and distribute sandbags.
“It was extraordinary, I don’t think anybody’s ever seen anything like that before,” Barker said.
Volunteers loaded thousands of sandbags onto frontloaders, which would drive the bags where they needed to be. From Memory Grove Park to State Street, sandbags lined each side of the road heading south. City and county workers built diversions to release water as it traveled south, with diversions at 800 South and 1300 South.
“We had widespread flooding, but we were able to keep it from most homes and businesses” in Salt Lake County, Barker said.
Much of the damage in the county was limited to the Jordan River and the county’s creeks, like the creeks flowing out of Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. The creek beds and banks at that time were washed out.
“Little Cottonwood Creek, for example … I think the normal flow was 300 or 400 cubic feet per second during runoff, and it was well over 1,000 cubic feet per second (during the 1983 runoff),” Barker said.
With the creeks and nearby rivers flowing much higher, the flooding caused damage to numerous homes and washed-out backyards.
The Memorial Day weekend floods weren’t the worst Utah catastrophes from spring runoff, just the most memorable. Just a month before the flooding, an enormous mudslide in Spanish Fork Canyon buried U.S. Highway 6 and all but consumed the town of Thistle. Other areas of the state also suffered during the spring runoff, as Davis and Sanpete counties saw mudslides destroy homes.
When the floodwater receded in the following weeks, the more careful work began.
County voters later approved a $33 million bond to make repairs and upgrades throughout the county, including the reconstruction of the North Temple aqueduct. Barker said it took three years to repair the damage and beef up infrastructure.
The county widened creek beds, put in larger culverts and rebuilt storm drains to be larger. Barker said the county also tried to improve parts of the Jordan River by dredging parts that had trouble carrying water.
“If there were narrow channels, we made those deeper, and so they can still carry the excess water without making the river wider in that spot,” Barker said.
Could it happen again?
Though the idea of Salt Lake City flooding amid a yearslong drought might be a far-fetched idea for some, the city has had to keep in mind it’s a possibility. The city’s public utilities have already started filling sandbags and currently have them available for residents. Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, says that, like in 1983, the city wants to be ready in case the worst scenario becomes a reality.
“We are certainly concerned enough to be monitoring very closely,” Briefer told The Tribune. “We’re trying to be proactive.”
Unlike the 1980s, when the Great Salt Lake’s water levels were plentiful, there are plenty of places where the excess water can flow if needed.
“One of the things that created such poor runoff over the last couple of years was the inefficiency of runoff because our soil moisture was so low, and so this will be helpful in that regard,” Briefer said.
The deep snowpack will help the city’s water availability, and excess water can flow into the Great Salt Lake.
However, Briefer noted this year’s deep snowpack still won’t pull the state out of its drought conditions, and people across the state will still likely be asked to conserve water.
Briefer said Little Dell Reservoir is a big help in preventing flooding. The reservoir, built about a decade after Salt Lake City turned into a river and situated just above Mountain Dell Reservoir, gave the city the ability to better manage the spring runoff.
Briefer added the city and county’s current infrastructure is much better suited to handle heavy runoff thanks to improvements made after the 1983 flooding.
Northern Utah’s reservoirs are a valuable tool for managing the spring runoff, but they are not a surefire way to prevent flooding.
Scott Paxman, general manager and CEO of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said he’s seen plenty of high snowpack winters during his 35-year career with the district, and filling reservoirs like Pineview and Causey in Weber County is important.
In the district — which covers Weber, Davis, Summit and Morgan counties, along with parts of Box Elder — water levels are looking good. Paxman said if the rain and snow stopped, the district would be right around the middle of its 30-year median.
But odds are the snow and rain will keep coming, which presents an interesting question for places like the Weber basin — how much water do you release from reservoirs?
The district has to strike a balance between storing water and ensuring the reservoirs are full by the end of the runoff. In the end, any water released would ultimately wind up in the Great Salt Lake.
“We spend some sleepless nights trying to figure out how much to release, how much to hold back,” Paxman said. “... and if the reservoirs actually filled and started spilling, then we lose control.”
When will it feel like Summer?
The ultimate decider of whether to worry about this spring’s runoff is simple: weather.
In 1983, the cool, damp spring kept much of the moisture in the mountains before the warm spell around Memorial Day gave way.
Barker said the spring runoff would come down to whether or not the state will have a typical warming and freezing cycle — or if it will melt all at once, like in 1983. Does he think this spring could be similar to ‘83? It remains to be seen, but Barker said he feels the snowpack and snow levels in the valley this winter aren’t as dramatic.
“I don’t see it happening to the same degree (this spring),” Barker said. “I could certainly be wrong, but if it did happen to the same degree, there would not be the kind of damage there was then, primarily because of what was done after that, the voters approving the repairs and the improvements.”
Wilson agrees, saying the improvements made after the flood leave the city in a much better position to handle heavy runoff.
“I think the basic infrastructure that we did then will work now,” Wilson said.
Despite the chaos and damage done to the city, Wilson remembers the flooding was a time when the city banded together to help each other. He added emergency situations like this can be rewarding to people if they get the job done.
Besides, once the flood walls were built and much of the water was contained, people started to have a good time with the newly-created State Street river.
“In fact, after things settled down a bit, I got complaints from kayakers who were mad at me for building walk bridges that didn’t arch, because they had to get out and pull their kayaks around it to continue down,” Wilson said with a laugh.