Salt Lake County has landed in trouble with state and federal officials after a road crew diverted a 200-foot section of Emigration Creek.

The "routine" maintenance left about 20 fish dead and caused severe habitat damage.

Shawn Zinszer, a stream-alteration specialist with the state Division of Natural Resources, said the effect of the diversion was the straightening or channeling of a meandering section of the creek.

The twists and turns in river systems are beneficial to natural habitat but can prove problematic because they can contribute to flooding problems.

"They look at it in terms of flood conveyance," Zinszer said. "They want it to flow in a straight line, whereas meanders slow the flow of water and increase flood likelihood."

Zinszer said his agency is working on the problem with the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which in all likelihood will levy fines against the county because of the environmental damage.

Neil Stack, the county's engineering division director, said the crew went up to the creek to remove a beaver dam, which can present nightmarish flood problems because water flow is significantly decreased due to the debris the animals stockpile.

Farther up the creek is where the crew spotted the meander and the collection of sediment and other debris.

That sediment can eventually collect enough that it eventually breaks free, flows down the stream and then blocks culverts, causing the stream to flood.

The crew straightened the meander along a 200-foot stretch of the creek.

"I think they thought they did what was necessary, but there were no homes in this area and there were no homes in danger. It was probably an area we didn't need to be in this time of year," Stack acknowledged.

Zinszer is dismayed at what happened.

"The creek was perfectly stable. I see no reason in the world they were up there."

The diversion killed about 20 Bonneville cutthroat trout, which Zinszer said are a "sensitive" species.

"There are agreements in place to protect this fish so it does not become a threatened and endangered species. I don't know how you attach a monetary value to that."

A private meeting is scheduled May 8 among state and federal officials and the county to determine an appropriate restoration plan for the area.