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A river ran through it

Utahns rallied 20 years ago as floodwaters deluged S.L.

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Chuck Call was trying to catch a few hours sleep in his parents' motor home, which he had parked at the Salt Lake City-County Building.

The previous night an engineer had informed Call, a drainage engineer for Salt Lake City, that a geyser had appeared at 700 West and North Temple, where floodwaters had blown out a manhole cover.

But this night, at 1:30 a.m., the engineer returned, knocking on the door. He said, "I've got a bigger problem. . . . That geyser's moving upstream."

That night was 20 years ago, and Utah's great flood of 1983 had begun.

The crisis lasted three weeks.

Call and the engineer hurried to the site of the first geyser. Maneuvering a backhoe to pull lids from storm drains, they discovered that boulders and debris from the raging streams had clogged a crucial storm conduit. The geyser had migrated upstream, along the storm drain network beneath the streets, because water had backed up ahead of the debris.

"That's when we decided that we needed to do something with City Creek because the water was just not going through there," said Call, who today is chief engineer for the city's Public Utilities Department.

"So we sat around a table in the middle of the night," trying to decide what to do.

They knew Utah colonizer Brigham Young had channeled City Creek to Washington Square, where the City-County Building is located. So, they thought, why don't we?

The planners decided to dike State Street to a storm drain at 400 South and create a new river, Call said.

The famous State Street River was born.

"I got to bed in the middle of the night and got up about 7 o'clock in the morning, and the dike was installed. That was the night they called out all the church groups and everybody else they could get," Call said.

Abundant moisture

Unlike the current Utah drought that has dragged on for five years, the early 1980s were a time of excessive rain and snowfall in Utah. The 1981-82 water year broke records. In September 1982, more than 25 inches of water fell in northern Utah.

During the winter of 1983, a huge snowpack accumulated in the mountains. By May 1, 1983, statewide snow levels were 158 percent of normal; by June 1, they were 489 percent of normal.

Unusually cold weather prevented a gradual spring melting. With monstrous snow accumulations in the mountains, it took only warm weather to bring it down.

But when the weather turned hot, the snowpack's swift melting caused chaos throughout central and northern Utah.

Saturated ground slipped in Spanish Fork Canyon. A gigantic landslide blocked the canyon, backing up the Spanish Fork River. The river washed away the town of Thistle, burying a section of the crucial east-west artery, U.S. 6. Another slide blocked Twelve-Mile Canyon.

Floods and landslides slammed Davis County, causing an estimated $75 million to $100 million in damage.

In Farmington, six city blocks were slimed with mud, and 200 residents became refugees.

Bountiful was hit by a 30-foot wall of water when the backed-up Stone Creek broke through a landslide. Three homes were destroyed and seven others had severe structural damage.

A mudslide in upper Emigration Canyon threatened expensive homes, and volunteers piled sandbags along the swollen stream.

Utah County officials declared a state of emergency in Pleasant Grove when floods started there.

Sandbagging State

So much water flowed into Salt Lake City that the underground storm drains filled.

On May 26, 1983, city crews piled several feet of sandbags along 1300 South. The dikes, lined with plastic sheeting, turned the street into a river from the 600 West viaduct until it emptied into the Jordan River about 1200 West.

As the snowmelt continued to descend, workers lengthened the "13th South River" so that it reached 700 East. Bulldozers and sandbaggers piled up berms that were 10 feet high in places, with water running 5 feet deep in the street.

But it was City Creek that posed a special danger for Utah's capital. "Crews sandbag frantically as streets turn into rivers," the Deseret News declared May 29. Worried residents piled sandbags to protect homes on Canyon Road just below Memory Grove.

Hundreds of volunteers — many from organizations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — splashed into the muddy water and built sandbag levees along State Street.

For three weeks, throughout the emergency, Call lived in his parents' motor home at the City-County Building, helping to battle the flood.

After that midnight powwow among planners, State Street became a river.

Terry Holzworth, now retired but then Salt Lake County's flood control chief, noted at the time that the church's ability to mobilize volunteers quickly saved property worth millions of dollars.

To handle vehicle traffic that usually used State Street, Call remembered, "We came up with the idea of putting a group of pipes across the street (for the water) and building an embankment over this gallery of pipe . . . .

"We were calling suppliers in the middle of the night to get whatever pipe they had.

"This was just constructed in one night, and in the morning, at 6 o'clock in the morning, it was all ready for traffic."

Pedestrians needed to cross the State Street River, too. "One of our engineers designed a bridge that would span where the dikes were and everything, and that was done in the middle of the night, too."

Lumberyards supplied pine boards and other construction material. "Budget wasn't a concern," Call said.

Footbridges sprang up over the State Street River at South Temple, 100 South, 200 South and 300 South.

Planeloads of sacks

At Salt Lake City International Airport, planes arrived loaded with empty gunnysacks for sandbags.

"We would load 10-wheelers with sandbags," said Dave Miller, Bountiful, who was a supervisor for the Utah Department of Transportation maintenance station for Salt Lake City and now is an area supervisor for UDOT.

"We would have trucks down there running around the clock." Sandbags were distributed to Salt Lake City and other Utah areas hit by flooding.

"It was like millions and millions of sandbags that we distributed," he said.

Volunteers, prison crews and city employees loaded sand into the bags, using sander trucks usually reserved for scattering sand on snowy streets. Human chains filled bags and threw them on pallets, which were loaded onto trucks. The trucks took the bags to the latest flooding emergency.

"I worked around the clock on it, you might say," Miller said.

"Everybody jumped in and did what they could. It was seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for a good month, just for the spring runoff."

As the emergency progressed, the State Street River was extended to 800 South, where a storm drain took the flow.

Strenuous labor

A traffic signal installer and maintenance expert who worked for Salt Lake City's Public Works Department, Jay Bowen was 59 during the '83 flood. A Deseret News photographer snapped him sitting on a conduit, emptying gunk from a shoe.

Now retired, the Kearns resident proudly recalled the wooden footbridge he helped build. It was a pretty good one, he said.

"Water was coming up out of the manholes. . . . It was blowing the lids off the manholes," he said. He worked to control the new river, helping to "keep it from going into the stores on both sides."

He mostly helped with bridge-building and stacking sandbags beside the State Street River, but he remembered how volunteers and employees filled gunnysacks. The sacks were placed on racks, and the workers "shoveled the sand into the bags, and then they had some wire — a tool that would twist the wire around the sacks, seal up the open end."

People worked for many days. "We put in some overtime," Bowen said. "It was strenuous and tiring."

Once the runoff ended and streams returned to their beds, "you had to go in and clean it up," UDOT's Miller said.

But besides a massive cleanup, workers also needed to improve the city's drainage system. New diversions were made to streams, and debris basins were built.

In 1984, high flows again filled Salt Lake City's creeks. But the impact was eased by upstream diversions, new detention basins, fixed pipes, managed flows from Mountain Dell Reservoir and better drainage.

"We learned a lot of lessons from '83," Call said. "I think we did a good job in '83. We did a better job in '84. It was just that learning process we went through."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com