Utah’s snowpack bonanza has Grand County worried about spring floods
Utah's above-average snowpack has weather experts concerned about the potential for spring flooding. It is a disaster that residents in Moab are familiar with.
On Aug. 20, 2022, flash flooding along Mill Creek devastated parts of the community costing an estimated $10 million in damage. According to KZMU, the 100-year flood event revealed shortcomings in Grand County's emergency response efforts.
"So this year, I'm looking at our alert system and encouraging individuals to subscribe to alerts through GrandCountyAlerts.org and also increasing redundancy in our system,” said Grand County Emergency Management Director Cora Phillips. “So that individuals in a command position can initiate alerts."
The alert system isn't new, but Phillips, who’s been in her role since November, said specific training for leadership wasn't being prioritized.
"The difference now is that training, specifically the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System online training through the Federal Emergency Management Agency is prioritized among the leadership team and there is system redundancy. Thus, if the Sheriff or I are out of town, the ability to initiate an alert through the IPAWS system remains."
She said the alerts are beneficial for both residents and tourists.
"We have a lot of tourism in our area, so those wireless emergency alerts will go to those tourists or truckers passing through. We did have successful use of that system during the winter storm that occurred on Jan. 17. And we were able, when there was a road closure south of U.S. 191, we were able to send out a message."
Throughout the state, each county assesses its respective flood vulnerability and potential losses. According to the Utah Hazard Mitigation Plan, Grand County ranks itself as having the highest flood risk in the state.
Phillips said they are also working with the Utah Silver Jackets Army Corps of Engineers to update the county’s emergency action planning efforts.
"I think the big picture is increasing communication. It's the biggest breakdown in any disaster, and proving our ability to work together and then increasing the level of community preparedness,” Phillips said.
Right now, snowpack is 170% of normal and at a level that hasn’t been seen in about 20 years according to Glen Merill, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service of Salt Lake City. He said Utah won’t hit its peak snowpack until April, and a lot depends on the weather.
"And if we're thinking of flooding, we want to kind of bring it down in chunks.That, again, will be totally dependent on the weather and temperatures and additional precipitation as we get into the snowmelt runoff season."
Here's your updated Snowmoji map, Utah! With about 60 days until our typical peak snowpack in early April, we've already surpassed what a normal peak snowpack would look like in an average year. Thanks for the data, @USDA_NRCS! pic.twitter.com/1oPI8dg4hL— Utah Division of Water Resources (@UTAHSavesH2O) February 10, 2023
Hydrologists say it’s not uncommon to experience flooding in drought conditions. During the West’s megadrought, late season monsoonal rains have often led to flash floods thanks to hard crusty soils that can’t absorb water fast enough. Mix in a change in climate, or other factors that affect how quickly snow melts, like dust or pink snow, and the conditions can be ripe for a flood if the soil can’t handle the moisture.
Phillips is stressing the importance of community preparedness, encouraging residents to monitor the weather, and use the resources found on bereadyutah.gov.
For those needing or wanting sandbags, she said the county recently received a new shipment and they are available for pickup at the city public works department or the Grand County Road Department.
"And we ask that individuals bring their own shovels and sandbags if they have them.
However, we do provide them and they are available as needed."