Chiefs from '83 remember Salt Lake floods and their impacts on conditions now

Published: Wednesday, April 20 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

Pedestrians cross the State Street river of water during the floods of 1983 in Salt Lake City.

Ravell Call, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Massive thunderstorms in the fall of 1982 gave Terry Holzworth a lot to think about.

A wet September means trouble when spring comes, the Salt Lake County public works director was thinking. "We started our assessment, finding out where all of the weak points were" with storm drains, water retention basins, canals — everything that held or carried water.

Leroy W. Hooton Jr., Salt Lake City's public works director at the time, was having the same concerns. Spotty reports of flooded basements meant soils were saturated.

But what happened in 1983 when April rolled into May was worse than either anticipated.

A massive landslide in southern Utah County blocked the Spanish Fork River, burying railroad lines and literally drowning the small town of Thistle in 180 feet of water. The Utah Geological Survey estimated the direct damage at $200 million.

Farther north, the snowpack was holding — even building in some places — clear into May. But then temperatures surged suddenly, and temperatures were in the 90s as Memorial Day approached.

That weekend, mountain runoff hit debris choking the underground passages that carry City Creek through downtown Salt Lake City and pushed the creek over its banks and down State Street, which literally became a river for several weeks.

Then-Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson called on volunteers, who turned out by the thousands to help line State Street with sandbags to protect buildings on either side.

"The Public Works Department built bridges over the river so that traffic, commerce downtown was not affected and people could pass over the river."

A similar approach had already been taken on 1300 South, where the underground confluence of three mountain streams could no longer contain the sudden runoff.

A mindset that stream and canal banks were dumping grounds for yard waste compounded the problem of keeping mountain stream water moving toward the Jordan River.

"Our problems were primarily caused by the streams getting plugged up with all the stuff — the trees, grass clippings, everything everybody laid on the bank," Holzworth said. "Unfortunately it doesn't go very far downstream before it becomes the neighbor's plug and floods him."

Flooding was such big news that Holzworth spent a lot of time doing media interviews and was nicknamed the "Flood Czar."

"More like the Flood Gopher," he said lightheartedly from his home in West Jordan, where he still watches the snow line on the mountains. He's also keenly aware of the similarities between conditions this year and 1983, when the county approved a $33 million bond to build infrastructure needed to make the Salt Lake Valley better able to handle severe spring runoff.

The more time passed, the more low-lying areas were threatened. The effects of the high water continued into 1985 and beyond.

Lawsuits and political rhetoric also flowed freely as a rising Utah Lake threatened subdivisions and I-15. Southern Pacific railroad tracks and stretches of I-80 through Tooele County were under water when then-Gov. Norm Bangerter decided to implement a plan to build a pumping complex on the west side of the Great Salt Lake.

Dikes on the lake had already been breached and smaller pumping operations were helping to keep the Salt Lake International Airport from going under. The lake level rose within eight feet of the runways, Bangerter recalled.

Some $65 million later, massive pumps began lifting water out of the Great Salt Lake in April 1987, shooting it into the west desert, where it spread for miles to evaporate.

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