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Flood Control Work in Southern Utah Pays Off During Record Rains

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Tens of millions of dollars in flood control projects and a new bridge put in place after record flooding in November 2005 were put to the test in late December as winter rains deluged the Southern Utah city of St. George and smaller surrounding towns in Washington County.

Photos by Mike Smith, City of St. George
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Starting around Dec. 21, heavy rains began swelling the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers. Local and state officials and engineers who had overseen about $75-million worth of work on new dykes, rechanneling and the $6.2-million replacement of a major connector bridge watched closely to see if their efforts had paid off.

“I really didn’t think I’d see storms and water like we had in 2005 again in my lifetime,” said Mike Smith, project manager for the city of St. George, who oversaw replacement of the Valley View Bridge, which was destroyed in the earlier floods. “We just finished up everything with the contractors (Wadsworth Brothers Construction of Salt Lake City) in November, and here we are with flooding again.”

By Dec. 23, water levels were receding. Local weather stations reported receiving 18.7 in. of rain during the storm or the equivalent of two years of average rainfall in less than a week.

In addition to replacing the bridge, money from Washington County, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the state allowed for miles of dykes and reinforcements to be built along the banks of the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers.

“Some people thought some of the projects were overkill, but this event proved it was worth it,” said Smith.

The bridge not only withstood record water levels but also a collision with a footbridge that washed down the river from a golf course. Smith estimated the steel and wood footbridge was about 80 ft long and 12 ft wide. It floated down the river, struck a bridge pylon and became wedged underneath. Volunteers from local excavating companies arrived with track-hoes and were able to free the bridge. Smith said fences along the side of the bridge were removed to allow one track-hoe to remain and continue to remove debris from under the structure.

The Valley View Bridge is a major connector to the city of St. George, so when it was washed out in the 2005 flooding, city officials immediately began work to secure funding for a replacement. A temporary bridge was built but then funding for the replacement was put on hold as state and county budgets were frozen. Smith said the city moved forward with plans for the bridge and was prepared with completed environmental impact statements and engineering plans when federal stimulus money became available in 2009.

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