Rights vs. risk: Living near canals and areas of danger in Utah

Published: Friday, May 3 2013 6:10 p.m. MDT

A Jordan River canal breach flooded eight homes on Saddle Bluff Drive on Saturday, April 28, seriously damaging three of them. Photo taken on Wednesday, May 1, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A muddy tree stump and orange caution fencing border a drying canal bed, a reminder of the water that coursed through this section of the North Jordan Canal before it burst Saturday afternoon.

Just beyond sits a wooden canopy playground set, unharmed by the torrent of water that came coursing through the yard, damaging this and seven other homes on Saddle Bluff Drive.

It's part of the hit-and-miss nature of disasters: Some things are spared, others destroyed. It's what keeps Elena Odorizzi, a resident of the street, awake at night, fearing a breach could happen again.

"I'm scared to death," Odorizzi said.

This Murray neighborhood learned firsthand the risks of living by a canal. But it is just one of many neighborhoods that lie below canal lines in Salt Lake County, and among neighborhoods where hundreds of thousands of Utah residents live in areas of risk.

Flood, fire and landslide zones are lined by homes, and a majority of Utahns are also at risk of being severely impacted by earthquake, according to Lincoln Shurtz, director of government affairs for the League of Cities and Towns.

More than 80 percent of Utahns live and work along the Wasatch Front, which has the Wasatch Fault Zone and fault lines through West Valley, Taylorsville and along the east bench, among other areas. Yet only 13 percent of property owners in Utah have earthquake insurance.

Everyone in Utah is at risk for a flood, said Doug Bausch, Federal Emergency Management Agency region VIII earthquake manager, and 99 percent of Utah residents live in communities that are eligible for federal flood insurance. In spite of this, only 4,500 properties statewide have flood insurance, according to the national flood insurance program.

The state has little oversight with development in municipalities, leaving the decision up to cities and towns on where to build homes and apartments. City and county officials weigh their responsibility to support individual property rights against public safety and acceptable risk.

"Trying to strike that right balance is difficult, and local government and the Legislature are always struggling with it to try and figure out the appropriate balance there," Lincoln Shurtz, director of government affairs for the League of Cities and Towns, said.

Rights vs. risk

In 2008, House Bill 177 granted municipalities the ability to deny requests for development in "a flood plain or potential geologic hazard area to protect life or prevent the substantial loss of or damage to real property."

Areas developed before this time, however, did not have this legislation in place, which means many homes were built in high-risk areas such as on mountainsides where fires and subsequent landslides can occur, Shurtz said.

Utah Realtors are not legally required to disclose geologic hazards, which means homeowners can be unaware of natural risks.

Dave Frederickson, president of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, said it is up to the buyer to identify risks they would be concerned with and the Realtor will then guide them to areas that fit what they are looking for.

"For me to put things that I might feel are concerning in the mind of the buyer is not necessarily doing anyone a great service," Frederickson said.

Homeowners south of the North Jordan Canal thought they were safe until Saturday's breach. They have jumped to action to make sure a similar breach does not occur in their community again.

Residents created a Facebook group for updates on the North Jordan Canal and to "encourage the community to take action about this issue."

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