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Utah officials tour areas in Weber County inundated with water

Published: Tuesday, May 31 2011 5:37 p.m. MDT

Landowner Paul Barney mows a portion of his property that he believes will be under water by the end of the week in Weber County on Tuesday, May 31, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

OGDEN — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert toured a water-logged western Weber County on Tuesday, surveying hundreds of acres of farmland already under water and homes at risk for flooding.

"Is there anything we could have done, that we are not doing, that could have helped you?" Herbert questioned Justin Tobias, whose pastures and outbuildings are awash in flood water.

Sandbags are already lining the man's home in the Riverside subdivision in Marriott-Slaterville, and a sump pump is running continually to keep water out of the family's basement. Sandbags are piled high along the foundation of his home.

Like others along the three-stop tour, Tobias pointed to decades-old flood control engineering — reinforced berms or levees — badly in need of an overhaul along the Weber River.

One water-softened levee gave way just recently, Tobias said, "and the water just started coming up like a river."

Where there used to be the makings of a hayfield is now a pond on farmlands that were all swamped with water during the 1983 floods. While the homes may have been built on higher ground based on federal flood standards, the land sits vulnerable, stripped of its usefulness with the water only expected to rise.

Weber County officials expect it would take $22 million over a four-year period to put in protections along the Weber River  — from re-engineering and rebuilding the levee to construction of an overflow diversion to the little Weber River.

In lieu of that, officials are scrambling to do what they can now, putting the lessons of 1983 to good use and taking advantage of the long window of time to prepare.

While flooding is a major concern in multiple areas throughout the state, it is keenly being felt in northern Utah where the snowpack, as of Tuesday, is five times greater than normal. Reservoirs will have to pass through anywhere from eight to 10 times the water for which they have the capacity.

The state's Emergency Operations Center has moved Utah to a level-two alert, acknowledging the flooding in 15 counties and 10 mudslides or debris flows are only a harbinger of things to come.

The only way out if it, stressed National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney, is if the weather will stay in the 70s through June and cooperates, "which I highly doubt."

With easily five times the average snowpack that still needs to come down in this drainage, reservoir operators are doing what they can to stem the releases into the rivers, but soon the spillways will do what they are designed to do in extreme situations like this — spill.

From there, controlling the flows of natural waterways such as the Weber and Ogden rivers or Chalk Creek in Weber and Morgan counties become more a wish than a reality.

As a result of flooding that has already happened, Weber County has declared an emergency, as has Morgan County, which is struggling with its own impacts from the upper Weber River.

The consequences, Herbert and others acknowledged, could be be severe, with the financial impact in Weber County alone estimated at $90 million — from property damage to businesses and homes to compromised infrastructure and crops not realized.

The final stop on the tour stressed impacts to three multi-million dollar businesses  — two dairies and the largest nursery in Utah — which either are and or could face monumental losses.

Wadeland Dairy is an $8 million facility that has most of its acreage already made inaccessible due to flood waters. The owners have only the days and weeks ahead to watch as their feed land gets flooded.

Gibson Dairy has 200 acres under water, with attention now focused on berming those fields to prevent damage to the cement irrigation infrastructure.

Blaine Wade could only look out onto his water-laden field acommodating only flocks of seagulls and bemoan the time-worn banks of the Weber River.

"Down through the years the river has been neglected," he said. "It's just not been taken care of."

The governor is pleading with everyone in Utah to prepare for flooding, noting it is a ground-up effort that will demand the help of individuals, families, communities, government and the private sector.

"We can't control Mother Nature, but we can mitigate Mother Nature," he said. "This is an all hands on deck exercise."

“Of all the natural disasters we have the potential to have, flooding is the most costly and the one that has the largest threat to human life,” Herbert said. “Historically, that is where we have lost property and people.”

For assistance on preparing for flooding, go to www.bereadyutah.gov.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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