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."

John Dye, whose basement was flooded as a result of the breach, said he is working with the canal company and city officials to explore options. Dye was appointed by fellow residents to represent their interests.

On Monday Dye will join the other homeowners most affected by the breach in a meeting with North Jordan Canal representatives to discuss possible solutions.

Negotiations with the city and canal company have been amicable so far, he said, and they will continue to search out an affordable way to fix and secure the canal so residents feel safe and water flows efficiently.

"I think what we're going for is overall safety so we can sleep at night," Dye said.

Dave Nicponski is councilman over District 1 in Murray, which includes the Murray Bluffs I and II communities. During a City Council meeting last week, Nicponski created a resolution to form a task force. He invited residents, representatives from the North Jordan Canal Company, engineers, members of the City Council and Murray city staff to participate. They plan to convene within the next couple of weeks.

Salt Lake County contracts with four major canals west of the Jordan River and three to the east. The area goes as far west as West Valley and cuts into Sandy and Draper to the east. These canals are in addition to privately owned canals that are not mapped. Because the valley slopes down toward the Jordan River, anyone whose home lies below the canal could be affected by a canal breach, according to Scott Baird, Salt Lake County division director the engineering and flood control division.

He said any number of factors could have contributed to Saturday's break, including rodents, irrigation, and planting and cutting into the embankment. Those who live near a canal might not even realize the cumulative impacts of disturbing the area.

High risk, low risk

Qualifying areas as being high- or low-risk presents a liability, said Dwayne Baird, public information officer for the Department of Public Safety. Identifying an area as low-risk could give a homeowner a false sense of security. He said Utahns need to take responsibility for themselves and their families by having at least a 72-hour kit of emergency supplies.

Still, help in identifying risky areas is coming.

Utah residents will soon be able to gauge their risk for flood, earthquake, wildfires and landslides by inputting their address in a website created by the Division of Emergency Management and Pier Systems, due to launch within the next few weeks.

"For preparation, the best thing you can do is plan for yourself, no matter where you live," he said.

Another way to identify risks is to view liquefaction, flooding and landslide risk maps generated for counties throughout Utah, by The Utah Geological Survey.

Maps created so far show liquefaction potential, debris flow, fault lines and landslides. Residents from north Weber County through Utah County live in the vicinity of a fault line.

Most of Salt Lake City and areas surrounding Utah Lake have high liquefaction potential. During liquefaction, soil loses its solid state and behaves like a liquid when under stress, as in during an earthquake. The map shows both susceptibility — soil and groundwater conditions that make an area prone to liquefaction — and potential — earthquake probability combined with soil and groundwater conditions.

East Bountiful, the west and east sides of Salt Lake County and Utah County bordering the Wasatch Mountain Range are susceptible to debris flow and landslides. Landslide areas on the map involve drier debris and large chunks of soil and rock. Debris flow is a type of landslide that is thick like wet concrete, and contains water, soil, rocks, logs and other debris, according to Utah Geological Survey's Mike Hylland.

Within the next few weeks, FEMA will release updated information on flood risks in the Salt Lake area.

Because canals are man-made, they are not included in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps.

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com

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