Jay Evensen: Life in the West teaches us a lot of lessons
As a cub reporter in Las Vegas years ago, anxious to make my mark, I was excited to get a byline on a front-page lead story. The blaring headline, as I recall, was something to the effect that .12 inches of rain had been recorded at the airport.
My in-laws, visiting from Seattle, found that amusing. They regularly have drizzles that amount to more. But to Southern Nevadans, who had just endured months of drought, it was news, indeed. It also was typical of life in the American West.
If you haven't had to ration water, put tires atop your roof to keep it from flying away or filled a sandbag or two, you may not be a westerner.
Author Wallace Stegner once wrote that, "Water is the true wealth in a dry land." In the West, however, it also is a metaphor for man's perpetual struggle with all wealth. We wish for more of it when it is scarce, when skies are clear and the sun beats on parched earth, but then it comes in excess and quickly teaches how too much of a good thing can be ruinous.
People who live here have learned to survive through thrift and planning — two virtues when dealing with wealth. They have learned how to spend pleasant days feverishly planning as if the skies were about to collapse, building Noah-like arks because nothing is as certain as the eventual rainy day.
And so we have pumps worth tens of millions of dollars sitting idly in the West Desert against the day when floods again threaten I-80, and we have invested an additional $50 million or so of taxpayer funds in pipes and improvements to City Creek since Salt Lake City's last great flood in 1983.
Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker visited the Deseret News editorial board recently and said he believes the improvements will be enough to keep North Temple from becoming a river once again. If there is any flooding, it should be well to the west of downtown.
His visit came a few days after representatives from Snowbird told us they have never before measured as much snow as what currently sits atop the mountains east of the city.
We will soon find out whether our collective efforts have been enough.
You don't have to search too hard through the archives to find out what might happen if it isn't. As far back as 1923, you can find an Associated Press story that begins, "The loss of life in the floods which swept Northern Utah last night and today continued to mount tonight."
In the spring of 1952, the front page of the Deseret News blared, "2200 homeless, 600 acres swamped by floods in S.L." 1300 South had been turned into a river to handle a raging snowmelt, and much of the area west of the Jordan River ended up submerged.
An editorial of the day offered this helpful advice, "Above all, panic and hysteria must be avoided." Easy to say when your house isn't under water.
Thirty-one years later, a much more populous Salt Lake Valley used a heroic volunteer effort to channel water and keep most homes safe and dry. Still, while many memories focus on the impromptu bridges across State Street, people tend to forget that 11 Utah counties were declared disaster areas that spring.
In many ways, the fact that large cities exist anywhere in the American West is a testament to the indomitable will of the human spirit. This is a place in which survival requires a good bit of faith and good works, and a lot of grace.
While we work to avoid panic and hysteria, we should never forget the lessons this land teaches.
Several years ago, after several houses disappeared into raging rivers around St. George, one resident was heard to say she had lived there 13 years and the river had "never been like this."
Ah, but it had, and it will be again.
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