A kinder, wetter Utah: Spring keeps piling up

Published March 31, 2005 1:01 am
Flood warnings, closed roads and marooned skiers - goodbye, drought?
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A federal expert is warning of the danger of huge snowpacks sending streams and rivers overflowing their banks in southwestern Utah, with the state calling for residents on or near a flood plain to buy insurance.

In northern Utah, a storm that heaped more snow on already heavily laden mountains, contributed to numerous traffic accidents, closed a canyon road, kept skiers inside at major resorts, and led a forecaster Wednesday to declare an end to the state’s six years of drought.

Randy Julander, snow survey manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Wednesday he was concerned the storms combined with cool temperatures could increase the potential for floods in the southwest, which in January experienced some of the worst flooding in decades when the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers swelled out of their banks and caused $200 million in damage.

"It could happen again if April is cool and wet instead of hot and dry," Julander said.

Derek Jensen, spokesman with the state Division of Emergency Services, said Wednesday that people living on or near a flood plain should buy flood insurance now. He said there is a 30-day waiting period for the insurance to take effect unless someone is buying or refinancing a home.

The warning and the advice come as snow and water sensors in southwestern Utah show colossal wet snowpacks, Julander said.

The mountains around Cedar Breaks National Monument east of Cedar City contain 66 inches of water. That water eventually will drain into the Virgin River, which cuts through St. George, and the Sevier River that flows north into Juab County. It is also indicative of what could cascade down Coal Creek through Cedar City.

Sensors on Gutz Peak above the Enterprise Reservoir show the snow pack contains 20 inches of water, all destined to come down in the Santa Clara River and streams around the town of Enterprise.

"Every snowflake that hits down there is compounding the problem," Julander said.

Unless, of course, the problem is drought, which National Weather Service lead forecaster Larry Dunn said finally is kaput.

"We have tremendous snowpacks in southwestern Utah and the Uintas," he said. "If it wasn’t for Bear Lake, there wouldn’t be any drought. . . . If I have above-normal precipitation, I don’t think we’re in a drought. But if Bear Lake is a big part of your life, we’re not out of the woods yet."

Even with all the rain and snow, Bear Lake is expected to be 50,000 acre-feet short of normal this year, Julander said. "That means quite a few people won’t have enough water."

Still, he said, "it’s hard to talk about drought with a straight face when you have snowflakes all around you, and spongy ground."

By midday Wednesday, Alta reported a snowpack of more than 209 inches, the highest total since the 1980s, Dunn said.

The ski resort, which has seen more than 600 inches of snowfall this year and around 30 inches since Tuesday, was closed due to extreme avalanche danger. So was the Little Cottonwood Canyon road leading to Alta and the Snowbird resort.

Skiers staying at the resort were to be kept inside until this morning. The Utah Department of Transportation was to fire the big avalanche control guns and open the road by 9 a.m.

Michelle Goodall, a ski photographer, was stuck inside the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird, where workers tried to find food and housing for all those stranded by the big snowfall.

"It’s chaos, really," Goodall said.

"No one can go anywhere," she said. "No one can even go to their cars."

The weather today was to improve along the Wasatch Front, where temperatures could reach 60 degrees by Saturday. But another storm is due Sunday. Whether it will bring valley snow is an open question, said KUTV meteorologist Roland Steadham.

"You don’t usually know what’s going to happen about how cold the air is going to be 48 to 72 hours before the event," he said. "The gates are still wide open in the atmosphere for the storms to continue rolling into the state."

Steadham said wintry disturbances will arrive about every two to four days. In between, "the weather will warm, it will be sunny and beautiful. Spring is winter weather trying to become summer weather."

Added Dunn, "Spring is the wettest time of year in the Salt Lake Valley. April is our wettest month, and it starts in two days."

Even though the Wasatch Mountains have a "monster snowpack," Julander said he does not see a significant threat from flooding at this time. Utah residents can, however, expect to see higher and longer runoffs this spring than in the past six years when stingy storms created drought conditions in the state.

"As people get itchy to get out and go camping, they’re used to how it was the past five to six years when the [snow melt] peaked early and came down quickly," said Julander. "They were used to low stream flows, not the high flows we’ll probably have this year, so they should make a conscious effort to be extra careful and cautious, especially with kids."


The Tribune maintains a news-sharing partnership with KUTV2.

Insurance information

Homeowners having difficulty obtaining flood insurance through an agent can call the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which issues the insurance, at 800-720-1093. FEMA will put a property owner in touch with an agent who can assist them.



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