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Can flash floods and drought hit Utah at the same time? Yes

Heavy rains help with soil moisture, irrigation demand

SHARE Can flash floods and drought hit Utah at the same time? Yes

Tooele city employee Harold Galloway helps load sandbags for a resident affected by the previous night’s flooding on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Heavy rain Sunday led to flooding throughout the state.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

It seems odd for 100% of the state to be impacted by an unprecedented drought and have to ride out flash flooding events at the same time, with intense storms causing damaged basements, problems at schools, hospitals and other buildings, and closing multiple roadways.

But that’s Mother Nature for you — inflicting extreme weather in conflict with itself — and forcing people to pick up the pieces.

Sunday’s incredibly intense thunderstorms across much of the state delivered an immense amount of rain in a short period of time and broke a record at Capitol Reef National Park set 70 years ago. The measuring station logged .9 inches of precipitation Sunday over .6 inches set in 1951, according to Glen Merrill, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

Merrill noted:

  • The east bench of Ogden south to Salt Lake City picked up 1.5 inches of rainfall in about an hour’s time.
  • Tooele Valley logged 1.13 inches of water, again, in a rapid amount of time.
  • Enoch, north of Cedar City, picked up 2.5 inches in about an hour.

The monsoonal season is helping the state in some respects, Merrill said.


Krizia Avina looks over her basement, damaged from the previous night’s flooding, in Tooele on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Avina’s family was forced to tear out all the carpet from the basement and temporarily relocate two children’s bedrooms after water rushed in, part of widespread flooding throughout the state from Sunday’s rain.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“The favorable part is the moistening of the soils,” he said, adding that the state had all-time low soil moisture content.

“We’re starting to get to near normal values in southern Utah,” he said.

Utah, particularly those southern sections, joins Arizona, New Mexico, southwestern Colorado and Nevada in moving from the worst category of drought — exceptional — down to extreme, which still isn’t good.

Merrill said the moisture also takes pressure off the need for outdoor irrigation.

What he and others have noticed at the agency is concerning videos of people attempting to drive through flash floods. In one instance, a motorist had to be rescued from his truck before flood waters engulfed it.

“It is really hard to describe the strength of moving water. It does not take much water to knock you off your feet and start moving vehicles.” Merrill said. “Flash flooding is extremely dangerous and its onset can occur very quickly during rainfall.”

And while some of that Weber County rainfall may have reached the Great Salt Lake — which reached a historic low July 24 — it is more likely that it was gobbled up by water-deprived soils before it had a chance to improve the lake’s levels.

Kim Wells, spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the moisture is welcome, but it will not help lakes and reservoirs.

“It is spring runoff that fills those,” she said, adding that certain streams are seeing improved flows as a result of the storms.

Too much water and drought don’t seem to be terms that can coexist, but Merrill is reminding people that 95% of the state’s water derives from mountain snowpack and flash floods don’t fill reservoirs.

An incredibly big winter this year will help to lift the state out of drought, but Merrill said conditions are so bad it might take a couple consecutive years of super performing snowpack.

“We’re looking forward to a big winter this year, with our fingers crossed.”