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Repeat of ’83 likely

The plight of Rockport and Echo reservoirs this summer will be like "filling a thimble with a fire hose." Holding back the flow of water above Coalville will be like "trying to stop a semi truck with a squirrel."

That’s according to Randy Julander with the federally-funded National Resources Conservation Service. Julander and the state’s other top water engineers shared their data and predictions with the State Legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Wednesday at the State Capitol.

A flood is coming and there isn’t much more that can be done, they told lawmakers. One threat that sandbags cannot help with is mudslides. Data is projecting more water and more ground saturation this June than that experienced in 1983 when water ran down Salt Lake City’s State Street and mud avalanches destroyed homes in Davis County, Julander said.

The reason is two-fold. Snowpack in the High Uinta Mountains is several times higher than average and the cool and wet spring has preserved the snowpack longer than usual.

"We’ve not seen snowpack like this since 1952," Julander said. "And we’re a month to six weeks late on the snowmelt period."

Rockport Reservoir only has room for 62,000 more acre feet of water, but 265,000 are expected. Echo Reservoir can handle about 74,000 more acre feet, but 390,000 are expected, said Scott Paxman with the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

Everyone in the room at the Capitol Building on Wednesday was expecting to hear some criticism next month when property is damaged, but not much more can be done, Paxman said.

Utah is a desert state, after all. The snowpack was average in January and February so the reservoirs were kept half-full to guarantee a one-year supply of water plus whatever drainage occurred in spring.

They can’t keep the reservoirs empty ‘just in case’ because that water belongs to people. In addition to protecting life and property, state law also requires reservoir managers to respect the ownership of the water, said Kent Jones, state engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights.

When snow dumped in March and continued to fall into mid-May, the reservoir managers had to act fast. They are releasing water as quickly and safely as possible in anticipation of the full runoff, Paxman explained.

Todd Adams with the Utah Division of Water Resources said water can’t be released faster because it would overload the communities at the bottom of the stream flow. For the Weber River, that’s Plain City.

"It’s a very good year not to have built in a flood plain someplace," Jones said.

The melt has been almost unprecedented, Julander said. Even if Rockport and Echo were completely empty, it wouldn’t be enough.

This will be a year of tests, he added. Utah will see how well local planning authorities did at prohibiting new homes from being built on flood plains; how well emergency responders are prepared for flooding and mudslides; and how well drainage structures have been designed and built.

Some in South Summit have wondered why existing canals aren’t being used to divert some of the water in the Weber River to the Provo River. Jones said the Central Utah Water Conservancy District has its own problems. The Provo River flows into the Utah Lake, which is restricted by law in how much it can release into the Jordan River.

If someone lives in an area prone to mudslides, Julander encouraged families to prevent members from sleeping in basements. Mudflows tend to push homes off their foundations and fill basements first.

Summit County Council member David Ure attended the meeting and lauded the South Summit irrigation companies that have been voluntarily flooding themselves to relieve the pressure on Oakley City, he said. Summit County government and residents are doing all they can, he said, and hope for state help if needed.


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