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Utah towns evacuating due to Virgin River flooding

By The Associated Press - | Dec 21, 2010

SALT LAKE CITY – Flooding in southern Utah closed Zion National Park and forced the evacuation of one small town south of the park because of fears a dam on a rain-swollen river might burst.

Rockville, population 247, was evacuated Tuesday because of the potential failure of the Trees Ranch Dam on the Virgin River. Rockville is immediately downstream from the dam, and a catastrophic break could increase water flows in the river by more than ten times the current flow.

The Virgin River has already surpassed flood stage.

Marc Mortensen, assistant city manager for St. George, said officials are discussing whether more towns will be evacuated. Engineers are looking at the earthen dam, which is leaking and eroded.

The dam and the reservoir behind it is privately owned, so county officials don’t have much information about it, Mortensen said.

Eric Millis, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the dam is 91 feet high. It was built in 1988 at the mouth of Parunaweap Canyon.

Zion National Park was evacuated Tuesday morning. Park officials said in a news release that they evacuated an unspecified number of people, including guests staying at the Zion Lodge and campers in the park.

“We’re not sure when it will open again,” Ron Terry, public information officer for the park, told The Spectrum of St. George.

St. George Mayor Daniel McArthur also declared a state of emergency for his city about 40 miles southwest of the national park due to flooding.

The Washington County sheriff’s office said flooding wiped out one of two bridges to the southern Utah town of Gunlock. About a half-dozen roads in the county, including state Route 9 in Zion National Park, have been closed.

The flooding caused an overflow at a sewage plant, and the sheriff’s office warned of fecal matter in the Virgin River.

In Mesquite, Nev., about 40 miles downstream from St. George, a city official said the Virgin River was gushing faster than normal and residents were filling sandbags to prepare for flooding.

“The river is flowing very fast and the river is widening from its normal course,” city spokesman Bryan Dangerfield told The Associated Press. “There is concern, but crews have been working all morning to shore up shores.”

No evacuation was planned, and no structural damage had been reported, Dangerfield said.

About 15 people from the Arizona riverside hamlet of Beaver Dam of took refuge Monday night at a shelter in Mesquite, said Stacey Welling, a spokeswoman for Clark County in Las Vegas.

Mohave County, Ariz., officials declared an emergency Tuesday afternoon because of the flooding in Beaver Dam and nearby Littlefield.

County development services director Nick Hont said water has entered at least two homes and is threatening a trailer park in Beaver Dam.

National Weather Service meteorologist Larry Dunn in Salt Lake City said rivers were expected to crest Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. As much as 3 inches of rain has fallen in lower elevations in the past day, he said.

A flood warning has been issued for Kane and Washington counties through Thursday.

The Red Cross has opened two shelters, one in Hurricane, Utah, and one in Mesquite.


Associated Press writers Cristina Silva in Las Vegas and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., contributed to this report.



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