Flood Watch 1983: Newspaper Coverage of the Flooding of Thistle and Salt Lake City

by JAMES STARBUCK

During the spring of 1983, Utah was awakening from one of the wettest winters on record. The previous year saw record precipitation and, in the latter part of 1982, summer rains continued through the fall. Rainfall eventually turned to winter snows and, in the process, saturated the ground beyond its capacity. What was left in the spring was an unusually large snowpack that was waiting to release its moisture down the mountain streams. In normal years the snowpack melts slowly due to air temperatures that gradually warm through late June. This particular season, however, saw a very rapid warm up that created an equally rapid snowmelt and high run-off that overwhelmed local streams, buried a town underwater, and turned streets into rivers.

Throughout this record water year, each new storm was adding to a narrative that would become the prominent news story from mid-April through mid-June 1983. This narrative was conveyed through the two local newspapers, The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and each story seemed to be a precursor to the subsequent stories that followed.

What would follow was a flood that had a lasting impact on Utah’s capital city and northern Utah, in general. This flooding was the result of heavy precipitation that accumulated during the 1981-82 water year, which began in October 1981, and culminated in September 1982. According to Linda Sillitoe in her article, “Floods,” it was a “water year that had broken all records; then September 1982 climaxed with ten times more moisture than normal.” Within this last month of the water year, saturated ground turned to mudslides that closed Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and flooded creeks to the point that the state’s Governor, Scott Matheson, declared a state of emergency, although federal aid was denied. (Sillitoe) September’s floods paled in comparison to what the following spring had to offer.

By spring, March again saw record rain and snowfall on top of soil that had reached its limits of absorbing water, and this record moisture continued on through April 1983. The soil limitations became evident on April 15, when a mountainside in Spanish Fork Canyon began to move and forced authorities to close the canyon. This mudslide was threatening U.S. Highway 6 and two railroad tracks and could potentially disrupt transportation and interstate commerce. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on Saturday, April 16, 1983, that during the previous afternoon, “the highway was measured at rising about a foot an hour. It is now about 15 feet higher than the original roadbed.”

In contrast to the reporting in The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News took the opportunity to report on the impact the slide would have on the last run of the Rio Grande Zephyr, “the nation’s last privately owned, inter-city passenger railroad,” that was scheduled to run on April 24. (Fackrell) Inclusion of this bit of information brought a somewhat personal, or humanistic, approach to the paper’s reporting.

As the slide began to dam off the Spanish Fork River, rising waters were threatening the nearby town of Thistle. On April 17, 1983, the Deseret News stated that crews were giving up on “trying to keep the road or the railway open through Spanish Fork Canyon and will now concentrate on keeping residents of Thistle and nearby areas from being flooded.” The Tribune reported that within Thistle, 72 families were evacuated “as water backed up behind millions of tons of heaving, sliding mud.” (Clark)

By Tuesday, April 19, 1983, this rising water was now being called Lake Thistle. The township of Thistle was doomed. Already, the 22 homes that occupied the area were inundated by the lake, now as deep as 50 feet, and The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the town “is up to its rooftops in gray water. Thistle may be no more.” The Deseret News again added a human touch by reporting that “some of the residents are staying with friends and relatives and others in trailers set up in the Canyon Ward church house.” (Ward, Martz)

Federal aid finally came to the residents of Thistle on April 30, 1983, as President Ronald Reagan approved Utah’s request for disaster status for the Spanish Fork slide.  The Salt Lake Tribune reported on May 1 that the “emergency declaration could provide family financial relief grants and temporary housing assistance.”

In areas surrounding Thistle, similar slides were beginning to form, such as in nearby Payson Canyon. The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Utah County Sheriff’s Lt. Gary Clayton as saying that the slide was “a loaded gun up there just waiting to go off.” (Raine) This was a common sentiment felt across all of northern Utah as other streams and rivers were beginning to feel the strains of the spring runoff.  On May 1, 1983, an article in The Salt Lake Tribune prophesied on the floods that would threaten Salt Lake City. The article noted that the National Weather Service expected heavy rains that would cause “flash flooding and standing water in intersections and underpasses throughout the Wasatch Front.” The article also noted that the snowpack, which was only beginning to melt, contained 33 percent more water than the previous year and would strain the streams already swollen with run-off and steady rain. (Clark)

It would be nearly a full month after the Spanish Fork slide that the areas located in Salt Lake County felt the brunt of the melting snowpack. Spring storms were still falling on northern Utah throughout May, and by mid-month it was evident that disaster would soon strike Salt Lake City. On May 17, the result of these storms was beginning to show as “the rain and snow filled Red Butte and Emigration Creeks to overflowing and in some areas the bubbling water flowed into curbs and gutters.” (Sorenson) It was the same story in the surrounding suburbs of Salt Lake City, and the nearby towns located in Davis and Utah counties, as the groundwater began to push above ground. Eventually, the rains were reduced to isolated storms, but in their wake the makings of a “worst-case scenario” was brewing.

Sandbagging efforts created manmade rivers in Salt Lake City over Memorial Day weekend in 1983. Courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

By the end of May, the rains had given way to higher temperatures that soared into the 80s. (Sillitoe) As The Salt Lake Tribune put it, “The sins of Winter have been visited upon the Spring.” On May 26, crews began setting up dikes and stacking sandbags along the east-to-west thoroughfare of 1300 South to convert it into a river that would run from State Street westward to the Jordan River. Things then went from bad to worse during the Memorial Day weekend as temperatures rose into the 90s. (Sillitoe)

Water began flowing down the makeshift river on Friday, May 27, between dikes that were seven feet high. The waterway was also extended six blocks eastward to accommodate the overfilled reservoir in Liberty Park. The Deseret News noted that “traffic was snarled … as crews blocked major roads and turned them into rivers.” (Davidson) Around the Salt Lake Valley, the melting snowpack was overfilling the numerous creeks and streams and prompted Salt Lake’s mayor, Ted Wilson, to declare a state of emergency for the city. City and state officials also began pleading with the public to supply volunteers to help with the sandbagging efforts in and around Salt Lake.

The next day, May 28, in a downtown park known as Memory Grove, water surged over a pond and sent City Creek rushing down both Main Street and State Street. (Ure) It was this event that made the flooding front-page news in the Sunday paper as the water flow from the creek “set a record of 234 cubic feet per second; the old record was 156 feet per second.” ( Ling, Dowell, Pressley) Previously, the coverage of the flooding had been placed in the local sections of both papers, but this changed once the capital city was affected. That night, road crews and volunteers began the construction of a second river to divert City Creek southward down State Street.

To save the local businesses from water damage, volunteers worked on through the morning of Memorial Day rerouting the creek from Temple Square to 400 South in downtown Salt Lake City, turning the city into a modern Venice. Whether it was in the spirit of the holiday, or the fact that disaster had been averted, once the water began to flow an impromptu “street festival” broke out among the 4,000 or so volunteers who helped build the waterway. (Ward, Davidson)

City Creek flows down State Street as pedestrians cross makeshift bridges. Courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

This festive sentimentality was also evident as the Deseret News attempted to add a little tongue-and-cheek humor to the situation. In its Sunday edition, the paper laid out instructions on “how to turn a street into a canal,” and listed the four necessary ingredients: “thousands of tons of dirt, a multitude of volunteers, a few thousandths of an inch of plastic, and, of course, water.” (Warchol) Already, these rivers in the middle of the city were becoming something of a novelty.

In the few weeks to follow, wood bridges were constructed to allow for pedestrians and vehicles to cross the river and linked downtown with Interstate 15. Restaurants also capitalized on the novelty as office workers navigated around the waterways during their lunch hours. (Sillitoe) At times, an occasional fisherman could also be seen casting his lure into the brown waters from one of the bridges.

Eventually, the streets dried up and the numbers were tallied. On June 9, 1983, The Salt Lake Tribune relayed the figures calculated by the Utah Department of Transportation, which put the damage to roadways at around $63 million. The Great Salt Lake had also risen over 4.4 feet and was continuing to rise. This was five feet above what was called the “compromise level.” (Fehr)  In a controversial move, Gov. Norm Bangerter ordered giant pumps that were installed in 1987 to lift the water out of the lake and into the desert to evaporate, to the cost of $65 million. (Fidel)

Both The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News built upon this story as it evolved with each storm throughout the spring of 1983. Although television news covered the events, it was the newspapers that really captured the narrative with each article. Television was better able to show the devastation through aerial views, but only once the events took place. The newspapers were able to begin their coverage much earlier. Not only did they report on the events as they happened, they also helped to predict what was to become.  Within each weather forecast throughout the spring, the papers gave predictions for air temperatures as well as the effects that the ongoing precipitation would have on future flooding.

The newspapers also helped the public to be informed on flood areas around the state. Although the events in Thistle and Salt Lake City were the prominent news stories, there were several other areas that were affected by the flooding as well. By the end of May, updates were regularly printed that gave accounts of flooding in specific areas. The narrative that came out of each article, fully told the story of how “the desert did more than bloom like a rose. It became waterlogged.” (Fehr)

James Starbuck is a junior at The University of Utah.  He is majoring in mass communication with an emphasis in new media and is minoring in arts and technology.

Sources

Jerrie S. Fackrell, “Crews give on canyon roads, tracks,” Deseret News, April 16,  1983, B1.

Ann Shields, “Shifting Mud Clogging Spanish Fork Canyon,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 16, 1983, B1.

Doug Clark, “Mountain Collapse Stops River, Destroys Town,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 18, 1983, B1.

George Raine, “Wall of Debris Holding Water Back,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 18, 1983, A1.

John Ward and Maxine Martz, “Slide turns mountain town into a lake,” Deseret News, April 18, 1983, A1.

Douglas L. Parker, “Reagan Approves Disaster Status for Slide,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 1, 1983, B1

Doug Clark, “Crews Monitor Streams Rains Threaten Floods,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 1, 1983, B2.

George A. Sorenson, “Storm Provides Flood Control Crews With Preview of Coming Disasters,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 17, 1983, B1.

Lee Davidson, “Crews Turn Streets Into Rivers,” Deseret News, May 27, 1983, B1.

“Warm Days Heat Up Utah Flood Battle,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 27, 1983, B1.

Glen Warchol, “How to turn a street into a canal,” Deseret News, May 29, 1983, A6.

Jon Ure, “Flooding Erupts From Memory Grove,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 29, 1983, A1.

Ben Ling, Thomas R. Dowell, and Roderick Pressley, “Sandbaggers Turn State Street Into Aqueduct,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 30, 1983, A1.

John Ward and Lee Davidson, “Storms threaten to aggravate flood nightmare,” Deseret News, May 30, 1983, A1.

Will Fehr, ed., Spirit of Survival: Utah Floods 1983, Indianapolis, IN: News & Feature Press, 1983.

Steve Fidel, “Chiefs from ’83 remember Salt Lake Floods and their impacts on conditions now,” Deseret News, April 20, 2011, http://bit.ly/higJCe

Linda Sillitoe, “Floods,” Utah History to Go, http://1.usa.gov/9GmOKI

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