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Snowmelt leads to heavy flooding from Southwest to Rockies

Cities in Colorado, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and the Dakotas were stocking up on sandbags as rivers and creeks surged.
Credit: AP
People work to protect homes into the night along 1700 South in Salt Lake City from the rising flow of Emigration Creek through Wasatch Hollow Park on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A rapid spring snowmelt after an unusually wet winter is unleashing flooding from the Southwest to the Rockies, causing residents there and in the Upper Midwest to stock up on sandbags amid surging creeks and rivers.

In Flagstaff, Arizona, neighbors on one street have been working side by side since Tuesday with shovels to stave off floodwaters from their homes.

Three creek-retention basins installed last year helped initially, city emergency officials said. But water has engulfed the shoulder of a local highway, and roads and sidewalks are closed. Even sections of urban trails are submerged.

Officials are calling it an unprecedented amount of water, something that was impossible to plan for.


“It would be nice to have an exact model of what we need to do. But we don’t," Flagstaff Vice Mayor Austin Aslan told the Arizona Daily Sun. "We don’t know what the next fire will look like or where that scar will be. There’s small differences that will direct water to one neighborhood or another.”

Sandoval County in north-central New Mexico issued an emergency disaster declaration in the wake of severe flooding in communities near the Jemez River. The river was 7.5 feet high as of Thursday afternoon, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Residents of the village of Jemez Pueblo, known for its mineral hot springs, were collecting sandbags as a precaution.

The deluge of water also led to spillover from a wastewater treatment plant, which was contributing to a rise in the Jemez River. The U.S. Forest Service is cautioning the public not to go fishing or drinking water south of the plant.

Credit: AP
Mayor Erin Mendenhall and numerous volunteers pile sandbags along 1700 South in Salt Lake City in an effort to divert the rising flow of Emigration Creek through Wasatch Hollow Park on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

In Salt Lake City, Mayor Erin Mendenhall signed an emergency order late Wednesday aimed at helping residents whose homes were threatened by flooding in the southeastern part of the city. Rapidly melting snow in the nearby mountains sent water coursing through a creek in the neighborhood, prompting the voluntary evacuation of about 100 homes.

The water was receding as cooler weather moved into the area. Even so, multiple mudslides were reported on canyon roads, including one that forced the temporary closure of Interstate 80 southeast of the city early Thursday.

On Wednesday, local officials north of Salt Lake City issued evacuation orders for at least 20 homes in Kaysville, where flooding ripped a large gash that damaged a street, sidewalks and driveways in a subdivision that was under construction.

Credit: Cindy Hermann

Meanwhile, heavy snowpack and highs expected to reach 60 degrees Thursday were causing flooding in northwest Colorado, where transportation officials closed Highway 40 between Craig and Steamboat Springs, a popular ski area that has received more than 400 inches of snow this winter.

Flooding in the small mountain town of Hayden forced the closure of schools for the day, and rain was possible in the area Thursday afternoon before turning to snow overnight.

The Colorado Department of Transportation posted photos online showing Dry Creek spilling over its banks at a bridge in Hayden, as well as floodwater threatening several parked recreational vehicles.

The National Weather Service issued a flood advisory through midday Saturday, warning that some roads might become impassable and urging motorists not to drive through flooded river crossings.

There were no reports of major damage in Utah or Colorado as of Thursday.

As rapid snowmelt and possible April showers stoke fears of heavy flooding in the Northern Plains, state officials are announcing flood response plans, and residents are assembling thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of sandbags to combat floods themselves.

Credit: AP
A Black Hawk helicopter with the North Dakota National Guard's Company C, 2nd Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment prepares to lift a one-ton sandbag during training at Kimball Bottoms south of Bismarck, N.D., on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)

The Red River Valley, which includes Fargo in North Dakota and Moorhead in Minnesota, is facing flood threats as warm weather melts the snow left behind from one of the snowiest winters on record in the two states.

And given the spring timing, “significant rain could have a major impact on the magnitude of the flood crest,” Moorhead city engineer Bob Zimmerman said to Minnesota Public Radio. “That’s the one wild card at this point that we really can’t predict.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has declared a statewide emergency for spring flooding and made the National Guard available to help fight floods in the coming weeks, the Bismarck Tribune reported. The city of Bismarck opened sites for residents to fill their own sandbags.

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