Utah flooding: Gov. Cox declares state of emergency

The declaration allows the state to access funds reserved for emergencies to better support Utah’s flood response.

(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. Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday declared a state of emergency because of ongoing flooding.

Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday declared a state of emergency because of ongoing flooding and flood risk as Utah’s historic snowpack continues to melt.

The declaration allows the state to access funds reserved for emergencies to better support Utah’s flood response.

“In short, we’ll be better prepared for what lies ahead this spring,” Cox said in a statement announcing the declaration.

In a new release Tuesday, Cox noted that the Legislature this year appropriated $5 million for flooding emergencies and mitigation. But those state funds have already been depleted.

The state of emergency now allows officials to tap into separate “disaster recovery” funds as Utah continues to experience avalanches, landslides, rockslides and mudslides brought on by recent flooding and warmer temperatures.

It also allows Utah to seek aid from the federal government as well as other states.

“We’re incredibly grateful for the moisture we’ve received this winter, but the extra rain and hefty snowpack present increasing flood risks as the snow melts,” Cox said in a statement.

The state of emergency will remain in effect for at least the next 30 days.

Thunderstorms bring rain, hail amid flood advisory

Spring storms passing through the state Tuesday brought afternoon rain and thunder to the Salt Lake Valley, prompting an advisory about hail — possibly up to the size of a nickel — in some areas.

The downpour came as Emigration Creek remains under a flood advisory through about midday Wednesday. The flood advisory was first issued Sunday morning.

Overnight Monday, the creek’s flow reached about 111 cubic feet per second, according to the National Weather Service. “Flood stage” is considered to begin at about 130 cfs.

The creek is expected to reach slightly above 140 cfs overnight Tuesday, but additional rainfall may increase flows above that forecast peak and will be monitored, the weather service advised.

Wednesday forecast

On Wednesday, there is a 20% chance of rain and/or snow along the Wasatch Front, and a 30-40% chance on Thursday.

Cooler temperatures forecast over the next few days will help slow the melting of Utah’s snowpack and reduce stream flows, officials said Tuesday.

This pattern of weather warming — then cooling down again — over the past few weeks has been “optimal” to reduce peak snowmelt flows “for the most part,” said Brian McInerney, a former hydrologist for the weather service who is currently consulting with Salt Lake City.

“We’ve done that cycle probably about three or four times,” McInerney said of the recent roller coaster weather. “Now we’re doing it again with this recent weather system that’s moved through.”

Temperatures in the mid- to upper 40s are expected on Wednesday and Thursday, following highs in the mid-50s Tuesday. On Friday and Saturday, highs in the mid- to upper 50s are expected again. Normal high temperatures for this time of year are 62-63 degrees.

Temperatures near 70 degrees are expected on Sunday, followed by highs in the lows 70s on Monday.

Spring flooding outlook

Officials expressed confidence that Salt Lake City’s Emigration Creek system will be able to carry peak flows overnight Tuesday, in part because a large metal plate that was obstructing the creek — which exacerbated flooding in Wasatch Hollow last week — has been removed.

A “mitigation channel” made up of sandbags also remains along 1700 South, in place to divert water from nearby homes if there is any flooding.

In Cox’s executive order Tuesday, which he signed to declare the state of emergency, Cox stated that snowpack levels throughout Utah are close to or exceeding 200% in much of the state.

Snowmelt is creating “significant” runoff, the order states, and the risk of flooding may last months.

Across the state, the Utah Division of Emergency Management has distributed more than 1 million sandbags to help communities prepare for flooding, a news release from Cox’s office states.

Crews from the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands are also available to assist local governments with filling sandbags, removing debris and operating heavy equipment.