MURRAY — The high running water in Little Cottonwood Creek is causing problems on State Street in Murray.
The creek, which runs through Murray Park, flooded much of the park Sunday night and was blocking three lanes of traffic on State Street near 5100 South.
With their feet sunk into the watery grass, fire crews and local volunteers worked feverishly late Sunday trying to keep flood waters out of homes near Little Cottonwood Creek.
Between 6 inches and a foot of water from the raging creek had seeped through hundreds of sandbags into the backyards of several homes. The Christenson family arrived home at 5 p.m. Sunday to find a developing pond in the backyard of their Milne Drive home and volunteers from the surrounding Midvale, Cottonwood Heights and Sandy neighborhoods with sandbags and shovels in hand ready to help.
"I've never seen anything like it in all the 20 years we've lived here," Nancy Christenson said. "The water is seeping through and hitting our bedroom at the end (of the house), a good three inches by the door."
The water was up to the rear doors of the Canyon Creek Assisted Living building on Union Park Avenue the night before, and while the creek was steadily rising again, more sandbags and pumps were in place by Sunday afternoon.
"We're hearing from officials that the peak will hit sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., and that we could see the creek flowing 1 to 2 feet higher than it is right now," Unified Fire Authority Capt. Clint Smith said.
He said abundant late spring snow and cool weather created the potential for flooding set of by the warm snap of the last few days. And with 2.8 inches of snow melting per day over the past three days and Sunday hitting 3 inches total, the water flow rapidly increased and created dangerous conditions for homes despite precautions. The normal melt rate is 1 to 11/2 inches.
Similar conditions led to the 1983 flood that turned State Street into a river, but there are no indications that anything that severe is likely to occur this year.
The water began seeping into the basement of one home near 1341 E. Siesta Dr. (about 7500 South) around 6 p.m. Sunday while crews and volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Sandy Midvalley stake stacked sand bags near other threatened homes as the water creeped up.
"We did have a breach of the banks in the area," Smith said. "We're sand bagging right around the immediate homes to create a barrier."
Officials at the assisted living facility said family members were taking some residents home as a precaution, and there was an emergency plan in place to take others to nearby hotels if necessary. As of 10 p.m., the assisted living residents had not been evacuated. Residents of the surrounding neighborhood reported flooding in their backyards and said the water was as high as they had seen it in at least 10 years.
National Weather Service forecasters in Salt Lake City said the water flow was expected to stay at a rate that would cause limited home damage but not outright flooding. Snow levels on the south facing slope of Little Cottonwood Canyon were unusually high this year, contributing to the excessive melt.
About 60 volunteers from the Sandy Midvalley Stake went to the creek about 10 p.m. Saturday night and stayed until 1 or 2 in the morning, said LDS Sandy Midvalley Stake President Kenneth B. Moss.
A downpour of rain Sunday evening drenched volunteers hefting bag after bag of sand in an effort to protect a vacated home on Milne Drive that was being threatened by the rising creek waters.
"I'm just hoping we can save some homes here," said Stephen Weiss, a church member from the Cottonwood Heights area, as he placed a bag onto the muddy ground. "I haven't seen anything this bad since living in Sacramento (Calif.)."
Smith said there were additional concerns with large debris running down the creek from Little Cottonwood Canyon and clogging drains.
"If it allows the flows to decrease so we can get extra time to protect areas, that's good, but when they unplug it, we don't know how much water will surge forward."
Other areas affected by the fast melt rate includes Murray Park and the culvert running under State Street at about 5600 South in Murray, with the highest threat near Willows Condos at 5518 Willow Lane (565 East).
The threat will be lower by Tuesday or Wednesday as a cold front moves through and diminishes the snow melt, said Brian McInerney, hydraulogist for the National Weather Service. Forecasters said Little Cottonwood Creek at the Jordan River was running about 700 cubic feet per second with prospective flood stages described as 722 cubic feet per second.
"We're fast approaching flood, and they expect the creek to rise by midnight," Smith said.
President Moss said stake members went back out after church meetings on Sunday.
"We had a bunch of youth, women and men out there. We're going to try out some emergency preparedness for real. We haven't had to do that for a long time," he said.
The stake first counselor, Blake Howell, described it as a community effort with stake members, neighbors and family of residents affected by potential flooding.
"It doesn't matter what job they're asked to do," Howell said. "There's no complaining or moaning. It's the exact opposite. People are doing it with a smile on their face, trying to make a difficult situation fun."
The National Weather Service on Sunday issued a flood watch through Monday morning for Little Cottonwood Creek in Alta, Murray and Sandy. The creek was expected to approach or exceed flood stage overnight. Affected areas could include 700 East, the Fort Union area, the Willows condos and Murray Park.
Flood advisories were also posted for Tooele County in the valleys south of I-80 and for western Uintah County, where flooding in agricultural areas along several rivers was expected through Monday afternoon.
"We're trying to manage this need while dealing with all our other public needs," Smith said. "We're stretched a bit thin right now. We'll stay as long as there's a threat."
Nancy Christenson, who sat in her kitchen, was just grateful her family had bought flood insurance this year — the first time in 20 years they had bought it.
"Our worry now is if it takes out the roots of the trees, that would just be a disaster," she said. "We've already seen 15-foot trees heading down the creek. If more break out, we'll have a nice little swimming pool right in our backyard."