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Chiefs from ’83 remember Salt Lake floods and their impacts on conditions now

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SALT LAKE CITY — Massive thunderstorms in the fall of 1982 gave Terry Holzworth a lot to think about.

A wet September means trouble when spring comes, the Salt Lake County public works director was thinking. "We started our assessment, finding out where all of the weak points were" with storm drains, water retention basins, canals — everything that held or carried water.

Leroy W. Hooton Jr., Salt Lake City's public works director at the time, was having the same concerns. Spotty reports of flooded basements meant soils were saturated.

But what happened in 1983 when April rolled into May was worse than either anticipated.

A massive landslide in southern Utah County blocked the Spanish Fork River, burying railroad lines and literally drowning the small town of Thistle in 180 feet of water. The Utah Geological Survey estimated the direct damage at $200 million.

Farther north, the snowpack was holding — even building in some places — clear into May. But then temperatures surged suddenly, and temperatures were in the 90s as Memorial Day approached.

That weekend, mountain runoff hit debris choking the underground passages that carry City Creek through downtown Salt Lake City and pushed the creek over its banks and down State Street, which literally became a river for several weeks.

Then-Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson called on volunteers, who turned out by the thousands to help line State Street with sandbags to protect buildings on either side.

"The Public Works Department built bridges over the river so that traffic, commerce downtown was not affected and people could pass over the river."

A similar approach had already been taken on 1300 South, where the underground confluence of three mountain streams could no longer contain the sudden runoff.

A mindset that stream and canal banks were dumping grounds for yard waste compounded the problem of keeping mountain stream water moving toward the Jordan River.

"Our problems were primarily caused by the streams getting plugged up with all the stuff — the trees, grass clippings, everything everybody laid on the bank," Holzworth said. "Unfortunately it doesn't go very far downstream before it becomes the neighbor's plug and floods him."

Flooding was such big news that Holzworth spent a lot of time doing media interviews and was nicknamed the "Flood Czar."

"More like the Flood Gopher," he said lightheartedly from his home in West Jordan, where he still watches the snow line on the mountains. He's also keenly aware of the similarities between conditions this year and 1983, when the county approved a $33 million bond to build infrastructure needed to make the Salt Lake Valley better able to handle severe spring runoff.

The more time passed, the more low-lying areas were threatened. The effects of the high water continued into 1985 and beyond.

Lawsuits and political rhetoric also flowed freely as a rising Utah Lake threatened subdivisions and I-15. Southern Pacific railroad tracks and stretches of I-80 through Tooele County were under water when then-Gov. Norm Bangerter decided to implement a plan to build a pumping complex on the west side of the Great Salt Lake.

Dikes on the lake had already been breached and smaller pumping operations were helping to keep the Salt Lake International Airport from going under. The lake level rose within eight feet of the runways, Bangerter recalled.

Some $65 million later, massive pumps began lifting water out of the Great Salt Lake in April 1987, shooting it into the west desert, where it spread for miles to evaporate.

The plan drew criticism from some as being implemented too late. "I didn't want to build them. But you get to the point where you've got to do something, and that was really the only thing to do," Bangerter said this week.

"If we would have built them five or six years earlier, they would have saved a lot more money," he said. "But they've paid for themselves."

Maybe not in his lifetime, the 78-year-old former governor says, but the pumps will likely be needed again.

In Salt Lake County generally, infrastructure built after the 1983 floods left the valley better able to withstand flooding this year and into the future.

"We should still be in pretty fine shape because the channels have all been improved to a capacity that's well above the old flood numbers," Holzworth said. A lot of the threat this year is dependent on weather over the next few weeks.

For public works officials, "I just think you just need to be vigilant. You need to be monitoring. You know where the critical points are. They've always been about the same place," Holzworth said.

Hooton has similar observations. "The system and the storage capacity we have in our reservoirs are much improved today over 1983," he said. "And we do have a large snowpack this year. So the next month is going to be interesting for those operating these systems and keeping the water flowing."

Holzworth said Utah also benefits from another great natural resource: volunteers.

"The other thing that hasn't been lost that I'm seeing this year is this attitude of volunteerism. I'm already hearing about people coming from across the county to help people they don't know. That saved our properties back in '83 and it'll save us again."

Email: sfidel@desnews.com

Twitter: SteveFidel