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Federal agency working to reduce Utah flood danger despite shutdown

Published: Saturday, Oct. 12 2013 3:04 p.m. MDT

Crews work Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, at the site of a catch basin that is being built in Huntington Canyon by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Emery County to reduce the threat of flooding for businesses and residents along Huntington Creek.  (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News) Crews work Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, at the site of a catch basin that is being built in Huntington Canyon by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Emery County to reduce the threat of flooding for businesses and residents along Huntington Creek. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News)

HUNTINGTON — Although 90 percent of its Utah staff has been furloughed, a federal agency most people know little about is still working around the state to reduce the risk of future flooding.

The construction of a debris catch basin in Huntington Canyon is among the two dozen projects the Natural Resources Conservation Service is working on in 15 Utah counties, despite the shutdown of the federal government.

"We've been allowed to continue working on those projects because they're projects that impact life and property," said Bronson Smart, NRCS state conservation engineer for Utah.

Huntington Creek, which runs through Huntington Canyon, didn't appear to pose much of a threat to life and property Friday. Add even a little rain on the canyon's slopes, though, and the creek runs thick with silt and debris from the burn scar left behind by the 2012 Seeley Fire.

"These things can be very damaging to the local residents," Smart said, noting that heavy flows of silt and debris in Huntington Creek can shutdown irrigation systems, cause flooding in low-lying residential areas and even disrupt operations at the Hunter power plant.

"We just want to protect (people) from these types of events," he said.

NRCS paid for the engineering of the project and obtained permits from the Bureau of Land Management and Army Corps of Engineers to build it. The agency is also paying for 75 percent of the construction costs for two catch basins in the canyon, with Emery County picking up the balance.

Crews will build dikes at two spots in the canyon, then install box culverts in the creek, Smart said. When the culverts are blocked by high flows or debris, the water will be impounded behind the dikes, he said.

"This will keep that debris and sediment in this location so that the county can easily clean it out," Smart said, adding that county crews will also clear the culverts after a storm to return normal flows to the creek.

Huntington, of course, isn't the only Utah community affected by wildfires or by the floods that always seem to follow.

"We have 25 projects taking place across the state," Smart said, noting that the agency is typically staffed by 170 employees but has seen its workforce reduced to 15 because of mandatory furloughs.

Still, the skeleton crew is working to ensure that the projects — and the $82.3 million in federal assistance they are slated to bring to communities from Cache County to Washington County — are moving forward, Smart said.

That's something Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon appreciates.

"Honestly, I wish this (catch basin project) had been done last year, but governments and money move slowly," she said. "The fact that it's started right now, I'm really relieved."

The area's secondary water system had to be shut down this summer due to heavy silt deposits after major storms, said Gordon, whose community cleaned out sections of Huntington Creek to prevent future flooding. There's hope the catch basins upstream will help keep the creek clean, the mayor said.

"There are so many trees up (in Huntington Canyon) still to come (down)," she said. "This (project) is going to hold back, hopefully, some of the big stuff that might block the river."

Crews hope to have the first catch basin completed this year, Smart said. Construction of the second basin is slated for 2014.

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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