Past flooding has prepared Spanish Fork for this year’s big runoff
Historic flooding in 1983 transformed Salt Lake City’s State Street into a river, with frothing, muddy water held back by sandbags and buildings towering nearby.
But the flood waters flowed beyond Utah's capitol city.
About 50 miles south in central Utah County, the Spanish Fork River also flooded in 1983, running then at 3,000 cubic feet per second. It was another year with record breaking snowpack. Heavy rainfall led to landslide wiping out the town of Thistle near Spanish Fork Canyon
With warm temperatures melting a record snowpack, the city of Spanish Fork is now looking to its past to help it prepare.
"This event will test the banks of the river,” said Spanish Fork Mayor Mike Mendenhall.
Above average temperatures this week topping out in the low 80s have the river currently running at 2,000 CFS, which according to Mendenhall, “is a lot more than most people have seen in the river since living in Spanish Fork,” and is also at least twice as high as a normal spring flow.
But Mendenhall said the river is much different compared to forty years ago or even 2011, the last time it hit flood potential stage.
"A lot of it was where we could clean the river. Deadfall of trees by the river, sandbars deposited in the river. Basically, the whole river channel has been improved through Spanish Fork since 2011 and of course, since 1983 and ‘84," said Mendenhall.
The river is able to handle more flow, but that doesn't mean he isn’t concerned about flooding. Mendenhall issued an emergency declaration on May 1 due to the rising Spanish Fork River. He said their main points of concern are from the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon to the area of Leland near the I-15 bridge.
"We're protecting public assets as well as some of the private residences that have a shared interest. We don't want their stuff getting into the river. That's our biggest concern is debris getting in the river and blocking some of those bridges."
The city also held three events where volunteers filled and distributed over 100,000 sandbags along the river.
Although Spanish Fork resident Shelly Jamison doesn't live in an area threatened by potential flooding, she still helped fill sandbags at the Spanish Fork Fairgrounds.
"I have friends that live in the flood zone and obviously don't want their houses to flood and they don't want them to have issues. So I think we're all here just neighbor helping neighbor," she said.
But even before the river started running at its current level, Jamison said people she knows were concerned.
"They were worried weeks ago when, you know, when the runoff started and the river wasn't even that high yet. But now they're obviously worried about actual water coming into their basements, their backyards and streets."
The volunteer effort was bolstered with the help of city employees as well as inventory from neighboring cities. Spanish Fork public information officer Nick Porter said the city did not spare any expense, and that they will have access to county and state funding to reimburse costs.
During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers appropriated $5 million for emergency management flood mitigation — and already spent it. Gov. Spencer Cox, though, has made assurances that the state will dip into its rainy day funds to continue the flood response.
"We've had contractors working in the river creating levees, clearing out sandbars for the past weeks and months, and that funding will be able to help with some of those efforts as well and anything else that we may incur,” Porter said.