Southern Utah flooding: '05 lessons paying off
St. George • Skies over St. George were laden with moisture Wednesday, but heavy rain held off at lower elevations as temperatures fell over high plateaus and mountains good omens for Washington County residents who've seen enough of the brown, churning monster that returned to the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers this week.
The latest spate of flooding comes just shy of the six-year anniversary of raging torrents in those river channels that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, sweeping away homes, roads, bridges and untold tons of soil.
Valuable lessons were learned, and they paid dividends this week as high-water flows exceeded those of January 2005 but caused a fraction of the damage, according to the Washington County Water Conservancy District and area municipal officials.
There was minor flooding of homes in Washington and Enterprise, and two golf courses in St. George were heavily damaged.
But for the most part, riverbanks, shielded by heavy rock after the 2005 deluge, held. Bridges stayed in place because channels are continually cleared of tamarisk and other vegetation since the flooding six years ago.
And this week, heavy equipment operators were stationed near each bridge to keep debris buildup to a minimum.
At a Wednesday news conference, Washington County and St. George officials heralded interagency cooperation and volunteers for mitigating what might have been a disaster.
"When you have an emergency, it warms the heart to see volunteers come out of the woodwork," said St. George City Manager Gary Esplin. "That shows what southern Utah is made of."
On Wednesday, Washington County Administrator Dean Cox praised volunteers who came out during the past few days to offer their services.
The volunteers "offer all kinds of community service that enhances the quality of life here," Cox said. "I want to thank all for their hard work and diligence in diverting what could have been a disaster."
Culinary water was quickly rerouted Wednesday morning after a water line was severed in St. George. And lights were turned back on in Hurricane after a short power outage late Tuesday.
There have been no serious injuries since storms overtook Utah's corner of the Mojave Desert on Saturday
Nonetheless, county and municipal officials knew it was too soon to signal the all clear late Wednesday.
"We are at the mercy of the elements," said Washington County Commissioner James Eardley.
Whether more flooding occurs depends on how much more rain falls on this usually parched landscape by daybreak Thursday. Soils have been saturated by more than 11 inches of rain in the past 72 to 96 hours.
But colder temperatures at high elevations signaled it would snow, rather than rain, in the high country, reducing flows downstream, said Ronald Thompson, district manager of the Washington County Conservancy District.
People were breathing easier in Gunlock, northwest of St. George, where high water in the Santa Clara River had closed U.S. 91 for two days.
"We've got a lot of water coming down the tributaries, but not like Tuesday," said Gunlock resident Dennis Osmond.
Town residents took watch around the clock to see if the Santa Clara River would be dammed by debris at the bridge that is Gunlock's south entrance.
"We're feeling pretty good. The water's dropped about five feet," Osmond said.
High flows in the Virgin River that reached 18,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) had receded to about 10,000 cfs by late Wednesday morning, Thompson said. Flows of about 6,500 cfs on the Santa Clara had slowed to about 4,000 cfs.
But in Toquerville, residents were still sandbagging. LaVerkin Creek and Ash Creek both could pose problems for the city if heavy rains return, said Mayor Darrin LeFevre.
"We just put as many sandbags on trailers, trucks, things like that, in case [the river] rises during the middle of the night," LeFevre said.
Northwest of St. George, near Enterprise, the Upper and Lower Enterprise reservoirs that were practically empty last weekend were at full capacity and spilling over. A dirt road to the reservoirs was washed out Wednesday afternoon. Officials don't fear the dams will fail.
A tributary of the Santa Clara River caused some flooding in Enterprise. Residents there were sandbagging homes and seemed to have the situation under control early Wednesday afternoon, said Pete Kuhlmann, Washington County's emergency-services director. Sandbagging was also ongoing in Diamond Valley and Brookside.
Trees Ranch Dam above Rockville has been deemed safe, and residents have been allowed to return. Some seepage Tuesday had caused alarm, but state inspectors say it will hold, according to Washington County officials.
The Virgin River was expected to peak at 3 p.m. Wednesday. Flow estimates had the Santa Clara peaking at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Kuhlmann said.
Although things looked promising early Wednesday afternoon, officials said more trouble could be on the way. But that is dependent on the weather.
"At this point, we've got it contained," said Washington County Commissioner Dennis Drake. "But it could again become serious."