Many Utahns woke up to yet another morning of blanketed rooftops and extended commutes as this season’s snowfall persists into April. The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning until 6 p.m. Tuesday evening, urging Utahns to prepare for difficult driving conditions and road closures.
The heavy early-spring snowfall has prompted Gov. Spencer Cox to declare April Flood Safety Awareness Month in Utah in preparation for the snowmelt runoff, which will likely come in May or June, according to Glen Merrill, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.
“It’s certainly a year to prepare,” said Merrill. As historic levels of snowfall has characterized this winter, water volumes will be high when it warms up. Whether or not the spring will bring flooding is uncertain — some say the risk is high, and others are confident snow will melt gradually enough for it not to be a major problem.
But pretty much everyone agrees Utahns should be prepared.
The governor’s declaration comes almost exactly 40 years after the 1983 flood that turned State Street into a canal, caused by record levels of snow melting rapidly — this year, Utah received even more snow than that.
Utah has come a long way since then in terms of emergency prevention, but Utah Division of Emergency Management spokesperson Wade Matthews says the potential for flood risk is still high.
“The elements are there,” Matthews said. “It just depends on Mother Nature now — how fast it warms up.”
If the snow melts quickly enough, it is possible that sheet flooding could occur in lower parts of the valley.
“Basements can get flooded in that scenario,” Merrill said. “That’s something that we’re going to be watching for along the Wasatch Back when it heats up.”
No flooding is anticipated in the near future, according to Merrill. But just in case, the Division of Emergency Management is encouraging Utahns to assess the risk of the area they live in and take precautions accordingly.
A flood can occur wherever it snows or rains, Matthews said, but the possibility increases in areas where there was a wildfire within the past five years — burned soil doesn’t absorb water well and creates a “flood after fire” risk.
Salt Lake County is encouraging residents to stock up on sandbags, which are available for free at different locations across Utah.
Millcreek has placed sandbags along Wasatch Boulevard for residents to take in preparation for any hazardous runoff. Mt. Olympus Community Council Chairman David Baird recommends that residents who live near waterways clean out as much small, moveable debris as they can.
“It’s amazing how quickly old twigs and branches, those small items, can clog up a major waterway, and that’s when we have the problem,” he said. “That’s the biggest imminent risk.”
Matthews also suggested Utahns install sump pumps, make sure their drains are cleared out and invest in flood insurance. “One inch of water can cause up to $25,000 or more in flood damage,” he said.
Unless the snow melts all at once, Merill said, flooding is not likely to be an issue. “What we want to see moving forward is some of the lower-elevation snow start melting off, and then the mid-elevation, so that we warm up in chunks over time.”
But as local experts and officials are saying, it never hurts to be prepared.