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Salt Lake County’s flooding state of emergency comes to an end

Water levels are still high, though, and officials are preparing for next year’s runoff — and this summer’s wildfire season

(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. Three months later, on July 10, 2023, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson declared the county's state of emergency because of flooding officially over.

After 88 days, during which high spring runoff from record-breaking snowpack levels flowed through Salt Lake County, the county’s state of emergency is over.

“I’m very happy to declare we’ve wrapped up this emergency,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said at a news conference Monday.

She said the emergency declaration was a success: “Our work protected homes, businesses and resulted in very minimal damage, and I’m very happy that we had no loss of human life.”

The county now is getting ready for the summer wildfire season, and preparing for the possibility of floods next year, officials said.

The damages from flooding in Salt Lake County this spring, Wilson said, were estimated roughly at more than $4 million. That’s a small amount compared to Salt Lake City’s huge 1983 flood, in which the damages were calculated at $621 million to local homes and businesses — or, adjusted for inflation, some $1.87 billion in today’s dollars.

Since that flood 40 years ago, many improvements have been made to flood control infrastructure, said Kade Moncur, the county’s flood control director. Storm drains and creek beds have been enlarged, reservoirs have been added, flood maps have been improved, and maintenance has been upgraded for drainage ditches, debris basins and detention basins, such as Sugar House Park and Wheeler Historic Farm.

“We have also increased capacity through pipe systems all throughout the county, and certainly the east side, that help move water efficiently now more so than the ‘80s,” Moncur said.

Salt Lake County was the first county in Utah to officially declare a flood emergency. That, according to a news release, allowed the county to move equipment fast, hire extra crews to clear debris, buy sand and sandbags, and apply for state and federal reimbursements.

Wilson noted that volunteers came together from around the county to fill sandbags over the last three months — which were then stacked to keep high waters, caused by the melting of the record snowpack, from overflowing into homes and businesses. The county distributed enough sand, to cities and residents, to fill 500,000 bags, Wilson said.

“We asked and people showed up,” Wilson said. “We’re best in this community when neighbors help neighbors. With the COVID emergency, we saw division. With this flood emergency, we saw unity, and I think that really made the difference.”

People can return their sandbags to the county, which is still holding drop-off events until Saturday in Cottonwood Heights, Murray, Salt Lake City, Sandy and Taylorsville.

Moncur warned that some creeks will continue to hold a lot of water through July and August. He advised people to take precautions, and keep a close eye on small children and pets when near water.

And while flood danger from runoff is largely over for this season, Moncur said there’s much work to do to prepare for next year.

For example, he said, the county’s 11 detention basins will have to be dredged — to remove sediment, silt, debris and other unwanted materials — to increase storage capacity and improve their ability to handle stormwater runoff.

Also, he said, because the reservoirs are now full of water, the county won’t have the “safety net” next season that it had last season. Even if next winter’s snowpack is lower than this year’s, he said, it’s important to remember that it’s still possible to have flooding next year.

“It really depends on how the water wants to come down the mountain, the weather, whether or not it’s a rain-on-snow event, and all sorts of things like that,” Moncour said.

Because of the high spring runoff and frequent storms, the Unified Fire Authority said last month, Utah’s wildfire season may start later than usual this year — but could be more intense, with a peak expected in September.

“We know we’re getting a late start to … fire season, due to the moisture, but I fear the fall,” Wilson said.

Wilson asked county residents “to just be diligent, and understand the one thing that will not change is [that] we live in a very arid state, and our temperatures are fluctuating. We expect some hot days ahead. And I would just remind people to be very cautious.”