Where to get sandbags in S.L. County, and how to protect your home from flooding

As the snowpack in Utah’s mountains sits at double and triple normal levels, more Utahns could be at risk of flooding this spring.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pat Shea, left, and his goddaughters Inara Bennett and Katie Bennett join hundreds of fellow volunteers to fill sandbags at Sugar House Park, April 15, 2023 to mitigate flooding in Salt Lake City. Volunteers were able to take home 10 sandbags for their effort.

For the past few weekends, volunteers throughout the Beehive State have gathered at churches, parks and city halls to bag sand in an effort to keep waterways from overflowing into homes and businesses as the weather warms and snow melts.

But snowpack in Utah remains well over double — and in some cases, triple — normal amounts, according to data collected and updated Thursday by the National Resources Conservation Service’s Snow Survey Program. Local officials are warning that the current flooding, mudslides and sinkholes may just be the beginning of disasters to come.

“There is a tremendous amount of water still left to come down,” Gov. Spencer Cox, who declared a state of emergency earlier this week, told reporters at his monthly PBS Utah news conference Thursday.

Officials have advised Utahns to prepare for continuing flooding in a number of ways, including determining their home’s flood risk, and, if necessary, securing sandbags to protect their property.

Cox said the state has distributed more than one million sandbags to communities, and according to Salt Lake County’s Flood Control Engineering Director Kade Moncur, localities in the Salt Lake Valley have used up 360,000 sandbags. Another 800,000 are on their way, Moncur told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Who needs sandbags?

Utahns wondering what they need to do to prepare for flooding should first search their address in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Map Service Center. If their home is in a shaded area — no matter the color — they are at risk, Moncur said.

The most at-risk areas of Salt Lake County sit on its east side, where snowmelt runoff is more typically a problem. And among residents there, Moncur noted, people living near creeks — not canals — should be most worried.

“They would want to sandbag off any low point of entry into their home,” Moncur said. “So think basement window wells, or walkout basement doors, or garages that slope downwards toward their house — anything like that where water can enter their house, that’s the area that they would want to protect.”

How to use sandbags

Sandbags should only be packed halfway to three-quarters full, to allow them to mold to the shapes of other sandbags when stacked. The bags should be placed lengthwise, parallel to the flow of water.

As sandbag walls are built higher, they should also expand wider into the shape of a pyramid, Moncur said. So if a barrier is four sandbags high, it should also be four sandbags wide, with four on the first row, three on the second row, and so on. They should be stacked like bricks — offset by half.

For added protection, sandbag walls can be wrapped in tarps or other plastic sheeting, like Visqueen.

This video from the Army Corps of Engineers demonstrates how to best stack sandbags:

Most retrieval and filling stations have a limit to the number of sandbags allotted to each household, so instead of building a barrier around an entire house, residents should prioritize blocking off anywhere water can get in the home, Moncur said. They should make sure to leave space for doors to open, so they aren’t barricaded in or out of the house.

When finished with sandbags, they shouldn’t be dumped into storm drains or waterways — any extra debris could cause more flooding. They should be thrown away in dumpsters or cleanup bins provided by the community.

Where to get sandbags

Most sandbag retrieval and filling stations in Salt Lake County are concentrated on the east side due to higher flooding risks in those areas.

Limits on the number of sandbags residents are allowed to take range from five to 25, and vary by location. Salt Lake County’s Emergency Management website has more specific details as to the schedules and constraints of each station.

People who are physically unable to retrieve sandbags should reach out to neighbors, friends or family for help, said Tina Brown, the public information officer for Salt Lake County Emergency Management. If they don’t know anyone nearby who can lend a hand, Brown added, people can call their city’s emergency management division to coordinate assistance.