Unless you’re peering through the brush and catch a glimpse of their hunter-orange clothing, you might not even know they’re there.
Some are armed with rakes, others with tablets. Some are out during business hours, others under the cover of darkness.
Their duties may be different, but their goal is the same: Catch problems before they occur to protect Salt Lake City from flooding fueled by record snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains.
Down by the rushing water of the creeks coursing through Utah’s capital, crews are working around the clock to ensure culverts and inlets to the city’s network of pipes are clear.
“Once they start to plug up,” stormwater maintenance worker Brad Jeppson said, “it’s just a domino effect and then we can lose control of it.”
Jeppson is part of Salt Lake City’s “Stream Team” — flood-fighting squads that include engineers, hydrologists, administrators, a communications specialist, emergency management officials and workers from divisions that typically don’t deal with flooding at all.
He visits about 30 grates every shift, scooping up sticks, branches, rocks and other debris that may obstruct the flow of water.
Small sticks can pose big problems
Laura Briefer, director of the city’s Public Utilities Department, said the coordination among the 35 to 40 members of the Stream Team is all part of the mission to get ahead of potential problems posed by spring runoff.
“The best way to plan ahead is to coordinate with all of these different disciplines that translate to the on-the-ground work,” she said, “whether it’s proactive work or whether we’re in the midst of an acute response.”
Scott Swanger, who oversees the city’s debris removal teams, said his crew of a dozen-plus workers plays a vital role in keeping water in, well, waterways. They pull small sticks from the streams all day so blockages don’t build up.
These teams, he said, are preventing major problems “pretty much daily.”
“Every time the water level rises from the runoff, it picks up more of those sticks that are on the banks,” Swanger said. “It’s an ongoing, never-ending siege of potential blockages.”
Failing to keep those grates clear can carry major consequences, Briefer warned. Once water backs up behind a blockage, it becomes difficult to remove debris.
That was the challenge officials faced last month when a blockage in Wasatch Hollow Park sent water careening down the street. Because the obstruction that caused the flooding was 25 feet under water, crews were unable to immediately clear the clog.
To stay on top of keeping streams clear, Salt Lake County has teamed up with city crews to ensure no major obstructions make it into the system.
Kade Moncur, the county’s director of flood control engineering, said county workers are staffing places like Memory Grove Park, Wasatch Hollow Park, Rotary Glen Park, a location on Wilson Avenue along Emigration Creek, and various spots in Emigration Canyon.
It is work that’s critical, he said, to keeping the system running.
“Before they clog culverts or bridges, before they clog a pipe that goes completely under Salt Lake City,” he said, “that debris needs to be removed.”
From customer service to flood fighting
Much of the work the city and county does happens at night, when flows peak.
To have an extra set eyes on things, the city deploys stream assessment crews 24/7 to roam the roads and report emerging blockages at grates.
Teams made up of public utilities employees who usually work other positions check at least two dozen sites a night to ensure nothing is gunking up the grates that protect inlets.
They don’t get in the water or remove debris, but they do contact removal crews if issues arise.
Dave Ward and Araceli Arche — both customer service representatives in non-flooding times — work 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. nightly, making the rounds to watch potential problem areas for flooding. They use tablets to fill out surveys, snap pictures and report conditions to utilities officials.
“It’s fun to do something different,” Ward said. “And it helps out, so I was happy to do it.”
Ward said he and Arche have gotten a warm response from residents, who are curious about what the crews are doing.
“We’re very glad to help out,” Arche said, “not for our own information but to just be there for other people.”
One resident even sets out water and snacks for teams to grab as they pass by.
Anything to fuel these tireless guardians of the creek.