MORONI, Sanpete County — When the waters of the San Pitch River came roaring out of the mountains two years ago, John Syme was fighting the debris that came tumbling with it.
The water was strong enough to suck the boom of a backhoe square against the irrigation diversion wall, nearly devouring that key structure with its fierce flows.
Such a buildup of debris not only causes floods by sending cascading waters in the wrong direction, but it also chokes off precious water in the summer when farmers need it the most.
“And then this baby came along and saved our bacon,” Syme said, pointing proudly at the new conglomeration of steel and concrete.
That “baby” is part of more than $6 million that has been spent on the ground in Sanpete County in flood control and fire restoration projects in a collaborative effort tapping federal, state and local entities.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spent $4.7 million via an Emergency Watershed Protection grant that garnered an additional $1.4 million from its local partners.
Here at this spot along the San Pitch River in Moroni, the money paid for a new irrigation diversion structure and “sluicing” box, which captures sand, gravel and other large rocks, keeping them from plugging piped irrigation canals farther downstream.
Over the years, Syme said all manner of debris has plugged up flows, including tires, tree limbs, even a dead yearling colt.
What used to take weeks to clear in a hazardous undertaking now occupies Syme’s attention for only a few days because of the way the new diversion structure was designed.
“It is just unbelievable what this has done for us,” he said.
Jones & DeMille Engineering used three contractors to juggle the 40 projects that spanned the county and tackled the aftermath of both floods and fires.
“We had intense, massive flooding from the 2011 snowpack in our towns and the problems from the wildfire the next summer,” said Sanpete County Commission Chairwoman Claudia Jarrett.
“How could a county like ours handle all that? We have the second to lowest median income in the state and rank 28 of 29 for poverty. To have the NRCS come in and help, it was just manna from heaven," Jarrett said.
In rural Utah’s political climate where the federal government is often cast as a foe, the conservation agency has earned the gratitude of locals who say the projects are critical to avert potential disasters down the road.
In Ephraim, city engineer and planner Brian Kimball said the emergency watershed funding rehabilitated the sagging Gobble Field Canal parked above subdivisions and Snow College.
The canal system includes a diversion structure that serves as a hydropower plant, delivering 6 gigawatts of electrical power a year.
“We almost lost it in the flooding,” Kimball said. “That is infrastructure that for us is critical, and for a city like ours, we don’t have that kind of money just sitting around. For us to have this repaired is a small miracle.”
Funded by Congress, the idea behind the Emergency Watershed Protection program is to address problems created by natural disasters such as floods, fires and windstorms.
That money in Sanpete County also helped the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and other entities carry out a massive reseeding project in the shadow of the 2012 Wood Hollow Fire that burned more than 45,000 acres.
The seeding, tackling the burn scars most vulnerable to flooding and mudflows, was carried out the past two years, and the results were anxiously watched this year as the summer rains came.
“We have not heard of any problems this year,” said Bronson Smart, Natural Resources Conservation Service state engineer. “It seems to be doing the job.”
Bronson said about $120 million in Emergency Watershed grants has been spent in Utah over the last four years, tackling flood control improvement projects in Weber and Salt Lake counties and putting in upgrades in Washington County, where flash flooding is an annual late summer threat.
Natural Resources Conservation Service spokesman Ron Francis said the thrust of the program is to not come in and embrace vast, new-fangled projects but to make improvements to systems already in place — in the event of another disaster.
At Wales, a tiny farming community west of Manti, the program delivered a facelift to a 1939-era Civilian Conservation Corps flood control wall that has mostly withstood the onslaught of seasonal runoff and directed the water away from the town.
“It’s done a good job over the years, and the construction is amazing,” Francis said. “This will help that (Civilian Conservation Corps wall) work and help keep this community safe from flooding.”