Residents of a town in southeast Utah are being advised to avoid any contact with the Fremont River after wastewater was discharged into it to “prevent the failure of wastewater lagoon embankments” caused by flooding Wednesday, state environment officials said Thursday.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality tweeted Thursday evening that “diluted municipal wastewater” is being discharged into the Fremont River near Hanksville to prevent the facility from failing.
“Users are advised to avoid contact with the river or use of river water until further notice,” the agency tweeted. “We are working with the city and Central Utah Public (Health Department) to conduct pumping to minimize the environmental and public health impact of the discharge. We will provide notice when discharge is complete.”
The agency’s update comes as flooding cleanup continues in Hanksville from “severe” flooding Wednesday evening. Gov. Spencer Cox said state emergency officers were assigned to assist local authorities in the cleanup.
The National Weather Service reported that Hanksville received nearly an inch of rain Wednesday, while a weather station at nearby Capitol Reef National Park recorded 1.39 inches. The agency tweeted that a flood warning issued for the area expired Thursday morning.
The weather service first issued a flash flood warning for an area by Capitol Reef National Park late Wednesday afternoon. Wayne County officials said park rangers first reported flooding on state Route 24 shortly before 5 p.m. The waters continued to areas east of the national park, including Caineville and Hanksville.
“Severe flooding was reported (in Hanksville). Excess rainwater from the Henry Mountains and the desert overfilled the Bull Creek drainage, causing several homes and businesses to flood extensively,” officials say. “Cars and camp trailers were damaged and swept away by the water.”
Photos from the area showed cars almost entirely submerged in water. The swift water even carried away a 500-gallon propane tank, according to Wayne County officials. They said a leak in the tank caused a cloud of propane and a “potentially dangerous situation” but first responders were able to safely shut off and secure it from continuing to float away.
‘From a little creek to … a river’
Zachary Bookman was among the people visiting the high-tourist area at the time. The co-founder and CEO of the California-based government accounting software company OpenGov is in the middle of biking from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Coast to meet with local government leaders and thank public service workers for their work following the pandemic and 2020 election, and also raising money for charity.
He had just met with government leaders in Ivins and continued east across Utah when his journey took him to Capitol Reef National Park late Wednesday afternoon. As the rain continued to fall, he and his father, who was also traveling, decided to continue east and get a hotel in Hanksville.
The flooding began after they left their hotel room to eat dinner at a restaurant across the street from his hotel. A woman came up and told them they might want to check their belongings because of the threat of flooding.
“As we’re going (across the street), you could see the water coming but it still didn’t look catastrophic. Then we get in the room and it went from like a little creek to like a river,” he told KSL NewsRadio. “We grabbed our stuff — you had about 30 or 45 seconds to like really move fast. My father grabbed the car and I grabbed the bikes and we tore out. He got the car about 15 yards to safety and then a wall of water hit it and the car shut off. … It was scary for a while.”
Bookman said his father was able to get out of the car just before the floodwaters carried it about 100 yards away. He added the same thing happened to several other vehicles nearby.
Authorities from the Utah Highway Patrol, as well as Sevier and Emery counties, assisted the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office in evacuation and rescue operations throughout the evening. They even used boats to help check on residents.
“Upon arrival, (Emery County Sheriff Greg Funk) and responders from Emery County assisted Wayne County responders in going door to door, checking the welfare of those impacted by the flood,” Wayne County authorities said.
In addition to all residents being accounted for, Pei said visitors at hotels were accounted for. Wayne County Fire Chief Steve Lutz said residents affected by the flooding upstream were also accounted for.
Aftermath: ‘Trying to dig out’
Residents and businesses from surrounding areas began to assist in the cleanup as early as Wednesday evening, Wayne County officials said. They added that the extent of the damage is still being evaluated and will continue to be over the next few days.
Bookman remained in Hanksville on Thursday morning after the owners of cabins across the street from the hotel he was staying at offered to let them stay overnight free of charge. The car they were traveling is likely a total loss, he said.
The flooding also put a damper on his cross-country trek for at least the next few days; however, that wasn’t the first thing on his mind. He said he was hoping to find ways to help out the residents while he’s there — repaying the kindness he said the locals have shown to his family.
“We’re safe and folks are safe; (it’s the) human life that matters,” he said. “But also it’s a really sad situation because I hear there are multiple other communities that have been devastated down here. There’s a lot of homes and mobile homes and other things that … are trying to dig out. It’s just a really tough morning here for a lot of people. … It’s a small community. The people know each other and take care of each other, and it really shows the strengths and the bonds at the community level.”
Hanksville is the latest southern Utah community heavily impacted by flooding this summer. Cedar City and Enoch in the southwest part of the state also dealt with severe flooding from storms in July and August.
Contributing: Mary Richards