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A River Runs Through it
The State Street flood of '83 was the talk of the town.
By Lance S. Gudmundsen
Every Salt Laker over a certain age, it seems, has memories of the floods of 1983, which for 13 days transformed State Street into a little slice of Venice—minus the gondolas.
Hector Ahumada doesn't recall precisely how he heard about "the river." It might have been from neighbors in his apartment building on 200 South or maybe the television news. "And I thought, 'Holy shit!'"
So on the Memorial Day weekend of 1983, the 35-year-old Chile native found himself part of a human chain, passing sandbags as thousands of volunteers stood shoulder-to-shoulder trying to contain a swift-moving torrent along State Street.
After seeing "a couple of guys with fishing poles," Ahumada decided to try his luck. "I ran back to the apartment, grabbed my gear and got some night-crawlers from the refrigerator." After 15 minutes, he gave up. "The water was running too fast."
The "fish story" isn't apocryphal. A Salt Lake Tribune lensman, in fact, captured an iconic picture of a beaming "unidentified businessman" displaying a trout he'd grabbed from the churning brown waters.
State Street became a river after mud, boulders and debris clogged an underground conduit carrying City Creek. Upstream in Memory Grove, it leapt its banks. At first, the waters sloshed at the LDS Church Office Building and walls around Temple Square, moving onto the then-Hotel Utah and some downtown businesses.
City emergency-management officials decided to divert the stream down State toward 1300 South, which already had been sandbagged to direct the record runoff from three canyon streams toward the Jordan River—which itself was brimming.
The muddy State Street torrent mostly was contained at 800 South where it emptied into storm drains. Later, volunteers and city crews linked the canal into the one at 1300 South. The old Derks Field baseball stadium, now Smith's Ballpark, became a giant retention basin.
Costing $30,000 each, two wooden pedestrian walkways sprung up overnight to bridge the 30-foot-wide river—half the actual width of State and 2 feet deep at places—at 100 and 300 South. Later, earthen viaducts were built at 500 and 600 South to connect with freeways.
Sunday morning, at the height of the crisis, Mayor Ted L. Wilson placed a call to Mormon Church headquarters, explaining the need for additional manpower.
Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the LDS First Presidency, initially was hesitant to turn worshipers' focus from scripture to sandbags.
Wilson reminded him "the water will come down City Creek, and your basement computers [in the Church Office Building] will be the first targets."
"Now I'm interested," the churchman responded, later telling the mayor, "Well, the ox is in the mire," a Mormon euphemism for breaking the sabbath.
So for the first time in memory, Sunday services were canceled, chapels emptied and an estimated 10,000 Mormons and non-Mormons alike galvanized to save the downtown area. Wilson also "called the Cathedral [of the Madeleine] and every other church in the phone book."
Recalls the former mayor: "It was like building a pyramid in one day."
City front loaders and dump trucks brought in tons of sand. In all, thousands of volunteers filled 860,000 sandbags—some estimates ran as high as a million—along the 13-block-long stretch of State. As an artificial stream bed, crews laid countless rolls of rubberized membrane to channel the flow. It all was damp, dirty and exhausting work.
In the days that followed, however, State Street took on the flavor of a festival. Shoppers became sightseers. A couple of enterprising restaurants moved tables onto the sidewalk with signs like, "You hook 'em, we cook 'em." Denizens of smoke-filled barrooms, restricted by Utah liquor laws, stayed indoors and swapped stories over 3.2 draft beer and mini-bottles.
The river became less of a nuisance and more of a novelty. Cameras (these were the days before smartphones, remember) were de rigueur accessories. Photographers captured a helmeted 18-year-old high-school student paddling his kayak upstream near the "Alta Club Rapids." Other watercraft—including inner tubes, makeshift rafts and an occasional skiff—were spotted on the new waterway.
All that water, of course, had to end up some place: the Great Salt Lake. Already cresting to historically high levels, the inland sea continued to rise.
Four years later, during the administration of Gov. Norman H. Bangerter, the state installed three massive pumps—costing $60 million—to propel water into the West Desert, where it evaporated. They haven't been used since. Derided by critics as "Bangerter's Folly," the pumps still are maintained.
The 1983 flood scenario began the previous year as record rainfall saturated soil throughout northern Utah. Reservoir levels swelled. Winter again brought record-shattering snowfall. Parley's Summit, for example, recorded 700 inches. Most of May was colder than normal, impeding snowmelt, but Memorial Day weekend temperatures climbed into high 80s, triggering the deluge.
Before the State Street flood, a gargantuan mudslide had blocked the Spanish Fork River in Utah County, inundating the town of Thistle and causing $200 million damage. And to the north, slides caused widespread damage in Davis and Weber counties.
After declaring a state of emergency, Gov. Scott M. Matheson was widely quoted as quipping: "It's a hell of a way to run a desert." The Reagan White House also inked an emergency declaration.
Of course, there's the question: Could history repeat itself if the Wasatch Front were to face another maelstrom?
Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, says: "The city learned from the '83 experience and put new capacity into the system." She adds, "We had very similar weather conditions in 2010-201l" and drainage infrastructure performed as designed.
On a scale of 1-10, "If we have similar conditions to '83, we're a 10 in terms of preparedness."