Jesse Stewart points to a small tower-like concrete structure sticking out of a pond behind him Monday morning.

This is one of two catch basins that Salt Lake County officials installed at the mouth of City Creek Canyon in 1984, says Stewart, the deputy director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities. The other is installed at another pond about 100 feet away, on the southern side of Bonneville Boulevard.

"So what this does is it just keeps some of (the debris) — if not the majority of that — from getting down the creek and into the pipe system, so we can just come in here and pull it out before it becomes an issue," he explains, as the sound of the roaring creek drowns out some of his voice.

The catch basins were the first of several infrastructure projects that the city put in place after spring snowpack runoff caused severe flooding in 1983.

This structure was specifically made in response to the "State Street River" that flowed through State Street in downtown Salt Lake City that year. The makeshift river, which served as a symbol of how bad the flooding became, was created to divert the creek's water after debris clogged piping that the creek flows into close to the mouth of the canyon.

As the city is dealing with record snowpack levels in the region that exceed 1980s levels, Stewart, other city water experts and city officials say some flooding is likely but the catch basins and other infrastructure projects are ready to protect Utah's capital from having to resort to another makeshift river.

"There is simply no way to predict really what the temperatures will be and what kind of additional weather may still be in store for us in this epic year. But we are absolutely, undoubtedly much better prepared today for the record snowfall that we've received than we were in 1983," said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

How 1983 changed SLC water infrastructure

Salt Lake City receives its water from the scenic mountains to its east, referred to by the Natural Resources Conservation Service as the Provo-Utah Lake-Jordan snowpack basin. The basin jumped to a record 40.1 inches of water on Friday, 5.7 inches above the previous record set not in 1983 but in 2011. It topped out at 27.9 inches in 1983.

However, what made 1983's flooding so horrific — living on today in memory and folklore — isn't just how much snow the region received but when it fell, when it warmed up and other unique circumstances.

The region's 1983 snowpack didn't peak until very late in the season, reaching 27.9 inches on May 20. Then, almost with a flip of a switch, temperatures in the mountains warmed up with the valleys and foothills at the end of May 1983. More than half of the region's mountain snowpack melted within the final 11 days of the month and all but 2.5 inches had melted in a month.

There wasn't really anywhere for that water to go either. The region had received record precipitation the year before and all the reservoirs and lakes in and around the Wasatch Front were filled up.

People cross a makeshift bridge over a flooded State Street in Salt Lake City in 1983. The river was the result of massive debris buildup that blocked four blocks worth of pipes beginning by the mouth of City Creek Canyon.
People cross a makeshift bridge over a flooded State Street in Salt Lake City in 1983. The river was the result of massive debris buildup that blocked four blocks worth of pipes beginning by the mouth of City Creek Canyon. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

It overwhelmed the infrastructure, including the pipe at the mouth of City Creek Canyon, and led to arguably the most memorable flooding event in the city's history. It forced city and county officials to rethink water infrastructure so spring flooding might never be that problematic again.

They started by installing those catch basins at City Creek Canyon, designed to ensure that City Creek's flow into the downtown area isn't obstructed. At the same time, they expanded the piped drainage system capacity so it could take in more water during a massive runoff.

Both city and county officials worked with federal agencies and water district officials to design Little Dell Reservoir in Parleys Canyon as a backup to the existing Mountain Dell Reservoir, helping store more water and also to control how much water flows into some of the other creeks that flow into the city before ending up in the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake.

Mendenhall adds that leaders documented 1983 well enough that it essentially served as the city's standard of what can go wrong in spring. That knowledge inspires water managers to do the work to prevent another State Street River from happening.

1983 vs. 2023

All of this leads back to the current situation. As fast as water is moving at the moment, most of the region's record snowpack is still up in the mountains.

Yet not only is Salt Lake City's water infrastructure different in 2023 but so is its water situation. This year's record snowpack comes as Salt Lake City and the rest of Utah climb out of the grips of some of the worst drought conditions the region has ever experienced, which certainly wasn't the case 40 years ago.

Despite some relief last year, about 98% of Salt Lake County remained in extreme drought at the beginning of the 2023 water year, on Oct. 1, 2022, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About two-thirds of the county is now listed in moderate drought, while the rest is "abnormally dry" for April.

Even as the drought improves, its impact over the past few years means there is space for the region's snowpack water to go.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, center, speaks at a flooding prevention event at Memory Grove in Salt Lake City on Monday. Laura Briefer, the director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, right, and Salt Lake City emergency manager Richard Boden, left, are also pictured.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, center, speaks at a flooding prevention event at Memory Grove in Salt Lake City on Monday. Laura Briefer, the director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, right, and Salt Lake City emergency manager Richard Boden, left, are also pictured. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

Deer Creek is currently listed at 70%, while Utah Lake is listed at 62% capacity and the statewide system is at 56%, as all three slowly rebound, per Utah Division of Water Resources data. The Great Salt Lake has even gained 3 feet over the past few months, though its elevation remains about 7 feet below a minimum acceptable level, as outlined by experts.

"That means less overall pressure on our upstream portions of the system," Mendenhall said.

As for some of the small reservoirs, Salt Lake City Public Utilities and Salt Lake County officials began conducting controlled releases from Little Dell and Mountain Dell reservoirs at the end of February when it became apparent that there was more water left in the snowpack than there was space remaining in the two systems.

Preparing for flooding this spring

Unfortunately, it's still too early to know how 1983 and 2023 will compare in city history.

As of Monday afternoon, only 0.3 inches of water have melted in the Provo-Utah Lake-Jordan snowpack basin since Friday. Laura Briefer, the director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, says that this week's forecast is ideal for a "measured runoff," meaning that low and mid-level snow should melt into streams and creeks before the snowpack does.

There is a bit of a cooldown expected in the second half of the workweek as a small spring storm passes through the region late Wednesday. Current long-range forecasts indicate a slightly higher probability of below-normal temperatures over the rest of spring, which could help reduce the chance of an immediate melt like what happened in late May 1983.

That said, the threat of seasonal flooding still exists while the snow is in the mountains. Residents in floodplains by the Jordan River and the city's various creeks should be the most prepared, according to Briefer.

"That's not to say that they will flood; it's just important to take extra precautions in those areas and pay attention to the forecasts and flood projections," she said.

The division is tracking the conditions and clearing out as much debris as it can, she adds. That includes over by the massive catch basins; Stewart said the pond was already dredged a bit and crews will keep equipment nearby this spring so they can clear the basins as soon as possible once the runoff begins in earnest.

Water from City Creek flows through a catch basin at the mouth of City Creek Canyon on Monday. The structure is designed to prevent debris from entering pipes that the creek flows into, helping reduce flooding risks in Salt Lake City.
Water from City Creek flows through a catch basin at the mouth of City Creek Canyon on Monday. The structure is designed to prevent debris from entering pipes that the creek flows into, helping reduce flooding risks in Salt Lake City. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

The county is also using the pond at Sugar House Park as a temporary retention basin to hold some of the water flowing into the city's southern end.

City leaders are calling on residents to help out, too. They recommend that residents "adopt" a storm drain, which helps keep drains clear from debris that could build up and cause flooding in other parts of the city. More flood prevention tips and current conditions can be found through a website the county set up.

Salt Lake City emergency manager Richard Boden says sandbags are most beneficial to people in the floodplain areas. A list of where residents are able to pick up sandbags can be found here.

Overall, experts and leaders are hopeful that these efforts will prevent a 1983 repeat, even if the final outcome is out of anyone's control.

"It's all going to come back to how things warm up and how much flows we get at one time," Stewart says.