$33 million set aside to help Utah communities combat flooding

The funds, reappropriated during a special legislative session, will go towards monitoring landslides, repairing roads and bridges and distributing sandbags.

After back-to-back years of declaring a drought emergency each spring, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox convened lawmakers on Wednesday to address a new statewide crisis — the consequences of record snowpack and flooding.

With reservoirs and waterways across the state filling up, and two to three times the normal amount of snowpack still piled in the mountains, lawmakers reappropriated $33 million in state funds to address the expected damage.

“We are in uncharted territory,” House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told his colleagues ahead of a vote on the emergency legislation, adding that the concern of the state is now how water will come off the mountains.

Lawmakers moved $20 million from the Department of Transportation’s construction budget to its maintenance and repair budget for highway construction and repair; reallocated $10 million for infrastructure improvements at the state and local level from the wildland fire suppression budget; and $3 million from the state disaster recovery restricted account was moved to the Department of Public Safety.

The newly appropriated money — along with $7 million that’s already in an emergency response fund — is expected to help expand and repair culverts, repair damaged bridges, purchase and distribute sandbags, monitor for landslides and staff the state’s emergency operations center.

Part of the money also is going to cover higher-than-normal snowplow costs and landslide mitigation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, during a special legislative session in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Excluding Lake Powell and Flaming Gorge — which remain low — reservoirs across the state are already about two-thirds full.

Glen Merrill, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service, told lawmakers that because the state had a record-breaking snowpack and cooler temperatures, many regions still have two to three times the normal amount of snow in the mountains, particularly in higher elevations.

The Bear River and creeks in Cache Valley have been above flood stage for several weeks and there is increased flood potential in the Green River and Colorado River, as well, Merrill said.

Temperatures for the next two weeks are expected to be above normal. Those higher temperatures, along with the potential for additional precipitation, mean there is a risk of flooding in Big and Little Cottonwood creeks, Logan River, Provo River and possibly the upper Weber River, with increased flows in the Green and Colorado rivers.

“Many of our significant river systems or waterways across the state are either going to be nearing or potentially exceeding flood stage here moving forward with peak flows expected in late May and into June,” Merrill said.

Gov. Spencer Cox announced earlier this month that he was calling lawmakers back into session to address flooding and a few other issues. Then, on May 5, the state has already spent the $5 million the Legislature has set aside for snow removal and flooding mitigation.

In April, with at least one of Utah’s waterways already under a flood advisory, Cox declared a state of emergency in anticipation of a statewide disaster response. Lawmakers, at Cox’s request, extended that emergency declaration through Aug. 15 on Wednesday.

“We want to get through the potential flooding season,” explained Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.

Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.