City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

March 12, 2017

March 12th

Filed under: Butterfly, Cottonwood tree, Dogwood, Gambel's Oak, gnats, grass, Horsetail, spiders — canopus56 @ 8:25 pm

Flooding of City Creek’s Delta – Part III

5:00 p.m. It is a Sunday; in the high fifties; and bright because it is the first day of Daylight Savings Time. Clocks were moved forward one hour, so this 4:30 p.m. was 4:00 p.m. yesterday. The stream is twice its usual volume; early spring run-off has begun. Until I am away from the stream on the Pipeline Trail, I do not appreciate just how loud it has become. The canyon is overflowing with people, and in addition to the strolling couples, now families with young children frequent the road. They are a sign of the coming spring. There are other signs this evening. I count six spiders of the same unidentified species on the road. A brown and orange butterfly goes by; the first of this new year. Below mile 0.4, some red-osier dogwoods are covered with new spider webs. In this lower part of the canyon, the buds of three types of plants begin to respond to lengthening daylight. The buds of some dogwoods have engorged and through their outer winter cases, the green of chlorophyll production can be seen. Horsetails through most of the canyon still lay flat, having been pushed down by the weight of prior snow. But below mile 0.4, the horsetails are standing erect, and this also indicates that chlorophyll production has begun. The buds of an unknown cultivar, out of place in this climate, ooze a reddish pink fluid and the stems leading the buds are turning green. But above mile 0.4, these signs end. Higher up canyon at Pleasant Valley, grasses respond. Where grasses were low last year, the ground is covered in green velvet, but for fields of taller grass with browned stems, the green is muted under that last year’s canopy. But in the entire canyon, the buds of native Gambel’s oak and cottonwoods wisely remain dormant. They are conditioned to a much colder February and March with more snow. Doing my distribution analysis of snow and precipitation for February, last month through February 21st, was a three percentile year for snow and a ninety-eight percentile year for temperature. In the last six days of the month, heavy storms and cold pulled February back to a 40th percentile year for snow and an 83 percentile year for temperature. This is a persistent drought pattern, and I expect March to also be unusually warm and dry. I am perplexed as to why early spiders would arrive and set up their nets. Above milepost 1.5, I look down canyon at the back lit road. The answer is the over 100 gnats suspended above the road. A coyote barks from the thickets of the southern canyon wall; it is waiting for the mule deer to start giving birth in April.

Most city residents take the 1983 flooding of Salt Lake City’s downtown as the benchmark of how rare city flooding is, but this impression based on a single lifetime is misleading. City Creek’s delta, and its business district, have flooded on numerous occasions prior to 1983, and if Bekker et al historical reconstructions are correct, the City Creek delta will be subjected to flooding in the future. Downtown flooding occurred in 1852, 1854, 1864 (flooding North Temple), 1866, 1869, 1870, 1873, 1874 (flooding Main Street and South Temple), 1876, 1882 (possibly flooding downtown), 1884 (flooding North Temple), 1885 (flooding streets), and 1889 (flooding streets) (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999). On June 19th, 1903 in a lengthy statement, City Engineer L.C. Kelsey described the risk to the City of flooding from an extreme weather cloudburst after hundreds died in a cloudburst flood in Heppner, Oregon (Salt Lake Telegram):

“A part of the city is located at the mouth of City Creek canyon in such a position that a heavy cloudburst in the canyon would send a wall of water into the city that would cause a heavy loss of probably both life and property.”

“I understand that cloudbursts in former years have done considerable damage, but nothing of that kind has ever happened while I have been here.”

“A cloudburst of any considerable magnitude would do almost incalculable damage, and I cannot see how it could be avoided.”

“There is no possible way to divert such a stream without an enormous expenditure of money. If unlimited means were at hand the question would have to be most carefully considered. I would not suggest any means of reaching this end without studying the situation. Means, however, could certainly be devised.”

“A war of water coming down the canyon, similar to that at Heppner, would sweep everything before It. Residences in the canyon’s mouth would fall like card houses and the wave would then sweep down North Temple and State streets. The greater volume would go down the former and the wall surrounding Temple square would melt before it.”

“The Temple itself, the basement at least would be inundated and havoc would be played there. The water going westward would soon spread, but incalculable damage and perhaps heavy loss of life would mark its path.”

“The lesser volume would go down State street, spreading ruin in its course, until It, too, had dissipated.”

“While such a thing Is not probable, it Is altogether possible, as the city in a climatic belt where cloudbursts could be well expected. Such things cannot, however, be foreseen” (Salt Lake Telegram, June 9, 1903).

After Kelsey’s caution, flooding also occurred in 1907 (flooding North Temple), 1908 (flooding North Temple) and 1909 (flooding North Temple and requiring construction of five foot embankments) (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999). Although the Intermountain Republican played down the extent of the damage and suggested that only minor improvements were needed, photographs of the 1909 flood at the J. Willard Marriott Digital Archives (Honker) and the newspaper’s own contemporaneous account suggest that North Temple to Second South were inundated with almost a foot of water:

The damage by the flood is not so great as would be suggested to a casual observer. . . . It will several weeks until the creek has receded to it proper channel before North Temple street can be cleaned up. Hundreds of tons of dirt and gravel, brought down by the water, will have to be cleaned up and hauled away; the temporary banks will have to be removed, bridges will need repairing, and in some instances totally reconstructed. The (City Creek) conduit must be cleaned and the channel banked up. All this will take weeks of strenuous work on the part of the street department. (Intermountain Republican, June 9th, 1909).

City Engineer Kelsey recommended a more robust response: encase City Creek in a concrete pipe under State Street that would bypass the central business district. On March 10th, 1910, P. J. Moran Construction Company reported that it will complete the underground aqueduct to carry City Creek waters past the downtown district and opined that the aqueduct will “render it impossible in the future for floods to go tearing down Canyon Road and the State Street . . .” (Salt Lake Herald). After the City implemented this permanent solution, downtown flooding again occurred in 1912 (flooding South Temple with tons of sand) and 1918 (silting 200 South with 1 foot of mud) (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999). On August 13, 1923, Kelsey’s 1903 prediction came true. An extreme cloudburst event along the Wasatch Front sent torrents down Farmington Canyon, destroyed Farmington City, and killed seven (Honker, 35-36). Salt Lake’s downtown also flooded (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999).

Despite moving City Creek to an underground conduit, Salt Lake’s downtown also flooded in 1925 (flooding basements), 1931 (12 inches of water in streets), and 1945. In the flood of August 19th, 1945, after a summer of fires that denuded the hills above the Avenues, a flash flood ripped down Perry’s Hollow, through the cemetery, and deposited headstones on N Street. Reminiscent of Kelsey’s 1903 caution, in the central business district,

“Two hours later [after the cloudburst] State St. was still blocked by the overflow from flooding City Creek. Boulders weighing 300 and 500 pounds were left along the way. Parked automobiles were carried for blocks. Tree branches and trash cans were left in four and five foot drifts.” (Salt Lake Telegram, July 16th, 1946).

The City reported $500,000 USD of damages in 1946 currency. In the 1990s, a roadway retention dam was built across upper Perry’s Hollow to prevent a recurrence of Avenues flooding.

The flood of 1983 required building of embankments on State Street, out North Temple to 1000 west, and along 1300 South (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999). Sandbagging along State Street prevented the then only underground garage at ZCMI from flooding (Salt Lake Tribune, June 1983). Historical photographs of the floods of 1907 through 1909, reproduced in Honker 1999, are reminiscent of the sandbagging of State Street in 1983. But by 1983, the earlier flood era had been forgotten, and city residents of 1983 viewed their flood as a new, rare occurrence (Personal recollection).

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 12th, 1853, he sees the first lark of the season, and he strips back the bark of a dead pine tree and finds gnat grubs. On March 12, 1854, he sees a flock of blackbirds, the first robin of the season, a jay, a chickadee, and crows. He records bare earth with no snow. On March 12th, 1856, he records heavy snow drifts. On March 12th, 1857, he sees a red squirrel feeding on frozen apples. On March 12th, 1859, he admires a rain-soaked bank that is colored by lichens, brown grasses and weeds, and sand.

On March 12th, 1916, the new scenic boulevard from 11th Ave, up City Creek, and then around to the State Capitol opened. The boulevard was then called “Wasatch Boulevard” (Salt Lake Telegram). On March 12th, 1906, Land and Water Commissioner Frank Mathews impounded fourteen cows that he found illegally grazing in City Creek (Salt Lake Telegram). On March 12th, 1905, City Engineer Kesley has begun survey work for the new 5,000,000 gallon reservoir in City Creek Canyon (Deseret Evening News).

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