Salt Lake City flooding: Voluntary evacuation order lifted; Gov. Cox ‘certain’ flood conditions will continue in coming months

The flooding reported in Wasatch Hollow and throughout the Wasatch Front on Wednesday followed an especially warm Tuesday in Salt Lake City.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews continue to mitigate high water from Emigration Creek in Salt Lake City as they redirect water across 1700 South and back into the creek through Wasatch Hollow Park on Thursday, April 13, 2023.

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A voluntary evacuation order was lifted Thursday afternoon for about 100 homes near Wasatch Hollow after Emigration Creek’s flow rate had slowed considerably.

The area was inundated with floodwaters from the creek late Wednesday, prompting Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to sign an emergency order aimed at supporting flood-affected residents. A mudslide early Thursday also temporarily shut down east Interstate 80 in Parleys Canyon.

The flooding reported in Wasatch Hollow and across the Wasatch Front on Wednesday followed an especially warm Tuesday in Salt Lake City, when highs stretched into the 80s, accelerating snowmelt. Wednesday’s highs were also in the upper 70s, but a cold front dropped Thursday’s temperatures into the 40s.

“The cooler temperatures have already started to decrease the snowmelt,” Christine Kruse, a lead meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said. “But it’s going to take some time for that water to get out of that system.”

At a news conference Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox said almost every county in Utah has received state assistance to help mitigate flooding — and that this week’s activity was only the beginning.

“You’ve seen the potholes all across Utah; we have big sinkholes in Kaysville,” Cox said Thursday afternoon, standing in an empty warehouse from which the state had distributed about 1.4 million sandbags. “We had a mudslide in Parleys Canyon this morning; we had a rock slide at Fairview Canyon yesterday; the flooding in Emigration Canyon last night and today, and in pockets throughout the state.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox is joined by officials from numerous state agencies during a news conference in Salt Lake City to give an update on flooding conditions on Thursday, April 13, 2023.

Since 1983′s historic flooding, Utah has made hefty investments in reservoirs and infrastructure to manage extreme water runoff. But Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry acknowledged Thursday that the state is in uncharted territory after historic snowfall.

In the 1980s, the state’s runoff began in mid-May, Ferry said. With this year’s snowmelt starting earlier, officials hope for temperature patterns like northern Utah has seen this week — a few days of warm weather followed by a cold front to “ease it through.”

“We’re certain that these flood conditions will continue in the coming months,” Cox said. “We are really just at the front end of getting all of that record water down downstream where it needs to go.”

Wasatch Hollow flooding

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall and numerous volunteers pile sandbags along 1700 South in Salt Lake City in an effort to divert the rising flow of Emigration Creek through Wasatch Hollow Park on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

In Salt Lake City, officials suspect a grate at Wasatch Hollow Park became blocked sometime overnight Tuesday. That, coupled with the excess water Wednesday, likely caused the flooding that prompted the voluntary evacuation order.

No residents initially placed under the voluntary order opted to leave their homes, Mendenhall said Thursday, adding that the temporary order came out of an “abundance of caution.”

The order was lifted Thursday afternoon after Emigration Creek saw improved flows, Richard Boden, Salt Lake City’s emergency manager, said. The waterway had peaked late Wednesday, but, by midday Thursday, its flow was down by about half.

“With the cooler temperatures coming in, we expect that to gradually ease,” Kruse, with the weather service, said.

Still, residents should stay aware of how conditions develop and monitor social media updates from the city and first responders. Road closures around Wasatch Hollow will remain in effect on 1500 East from Glen Arbor Street to Blaine Avenue, and on 1700 South from 1700 East to 1500 East.

”If you don’t belong in the area, [or] you’re not out volunteering,” Boden said, “we would ask that you stay out of the area as much as possible, just for your safety.”

While some Wasatch Hollow homes saw damage, none of it was major, city officials said. Mendenhall attributed the minimal damage to the hundreds of volunteers who helped fill and place sandbags late Wednesday as the flow surged to about a foot high on neighborhood streets.

“This is a tribute to the teamwork between the city, the county and the residents of Salt Lake City,” Mendenhall said. “This is what we do. We show up. We work hard together, and we’re good at it.”

Paul Rodney, who lives in a duplex on 1700 South, said he saw the floodwaters rushing down his street late Wednesday and helped stack sandbags in front of his home.

“I got faith in the community that they’re going to come take care of things,” he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People work to protect homes into the night along 1700 South in Salt Lake City from the rising flow of Emigration Creek through Wasatch Hollow Park on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

Emigration Canyon sees mudslides

In Emigration Canyon, homes and business along the rising creek braced for the worst overnight Wednesday.

“We’ve had between 10 and 15 mudslides, varying from a few wheelbarrows to eight or 10 truckloads of debris,” said Joe Smolka, the chair of the Emigration Canyon Metro Township. “We’ve had a small avalanche, which is unusual for our canyon. We’ve had the snow slide off roofs and cover part of the road. We’ve had multiple culverts plugged with debris.”

Salt Lake County Emergency Management Director Clint Mecham said one Emigration Canyon home was damaged significantly; Smolka said about a half-dozen others saw minor flooding.

At Ruth’s Diner, employees and volunteers used hundreds of sandbags to keep floodwaters away from the iconic restaurant. “The water was so high last night, but right now everything is good,” Juan Ruebe, a cook at the diner, said Thursday morning. “But it’s starting to rain right now, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emigration Canyon residents and volunteers fill sand basin the parking lot of Ruth's Diner on Tuesday, April 11, 2023.

Weekend outlook

Though Thursday brought some rain and snow, not much precipitation actually fell. “I don’t think it’s going to do anything to exacerbate the problem,” Kruse said of flooding risk.

Friday and Saturday were expected to be cooler, slowing snowmelt, but Sunday and Monday will be warmer — highs are forecast in the upper 60s — and could accelerate flows again.

Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, noted Thursday that mid- and low-elevation snowpack in the Emigration Creek watershed had largely melted, which marked good news for the future.

The flow in Emigration Creek peaked overnight Wednesday at about 155 cubic feet per second. “One cfs is about a basketball of water,” Kruse said.

“So if you want to visualize, that’s about 155 basketballs of water passing you every second.” (The creek’s highest flow ever recorded was in 1984, at 164 cfs.)

After warmer weather, the creek could see a flow rate Monday of about 110 cfs; “flood stage” for the creek begins at 130 cfs. “So right now, our forecast for Emigration Creek does not show another increase to flood stage,” Kruse said, “but that’s something we’ll have to watch as we go through the next few days.”

Many residents who live near the creek felt like they dodged a bullet Wednesday night, but there were anxious moments.

“I actually couldn’t sleep last night,” said Maria Gordon, who lives in Emigration Canyon, “and I think that all the neighbors in the cul-de-sac couldn’t sleep, either. But it peaked around 10 or 11 [p.m.], and then subsided. And everyone’s good. Everyone’s house is safe.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People work to save a home as Emigration Creek rises in Emigration Canyon on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

Briefer noted that next week’s warmer temperatures mean the Salt Lake Valley could start to see some upper-elevation snowmelt. Mecham said emergency management officials were keeping an eye on other creeks, too.

”This is probably just the beginning of our runoff season and the efforts that we may need to effect,” he said, “as we move forward in keeping the water in the channels and keep our residents safe.”

At a news conference Thursday, Ferry, with the Department of Natural Resources, noted some good news: Most reservoirs in Utah will fill this year.

In partnership with the Utah Division of Water Rights, DNR has performed “controlled releases” of reservoirs, so that when “peak runoff” occurs, the additional reservoir capacity can help reduce flood impacts, Ferry said. In Salt Lake City, the Public Utilities Department continues to release water from Little Dell Reservoir to make space for runoff in the Parleys watershed.

Cox noted that the additional runoff expected this year can still lead to landslide risk. Ferry said officials are currently managing about 100 active landslides.

”These are serious events. These are serious times,” Ferry said. “The water has a lot of power, and we need to be very mindful and we need to recognize how important our safety is in making sure that people are aware of what’s going on.”

Cox said the state isn’t sure what particular areas will be at risk over the next few weeks, but that the cities and counties do — so state officials are working to get those areas the resources they need.