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Tobin Wash in Gunlock, or is it Gridlock?

WASHINGTON COUNTY, UT – The tiny hamlet of Gunlock, Utah, is tucked out of the way on an isolated, rural road. To the north are the towns of Veyo and Enterprise. To the south lies the Paiute Reservation called Shivwits, and a little farther down the old highway is the booming City of St. George. Three times in the last 6 years, Gunlock has been cut off from everything because of flooding on the Santa Clara River.

People who need to head north on Gunlock Road to get to work in Enterprise, about 45 miles away, have been stuck and if they headed south to St. George and up Highway 18, an hour drive became 120 miles one way. Since there are no grocery stores or other conveniences in the small community, ingress and egress are critical. Emergency services are closest to the north, but via a winding, isolated road.

In 2005, the Santa Clara River was raging at 5,700 cubic feet per second (cfs) through the Gunlock gorge. Three bridges had to be replaced. In 2007, the river roared through the village at 8,000 cfs. A flash flood caused by 3 inches of rain overtopped the road and destroyed the Tonaquint Bridge at Tobin Wash.

“It was an unbelievably big flood,” Jay Leavitt, the Water Commissioner on the Santa Clara River, said. “It scared us. We couldn’t get outta town. It was overwhelming.” Gunlock Road was completely washed out, resulting in a 75-foot wide by 16-foot deep section of the road being destroyed. It hadn’t helped that in 2004 and 2007 forest fires in the area made flooding even more dangerous.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Legislative Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant (L-PDM) provided $200,000 to Washington County in 2008 to replace metal culverts with larger concrete culverts designed to handle extreme flood flows.

The reason for the change is that L-PDM grants are legislative directives. We don't "award" them. They come from the same pot of gold as the regular PDM grants, but they are handled differently.

Leavitt agrees that the mitigation has helped. In 2010, the Santa Clara River floodwaters tore through the Gunlock gorge at 5,390 cfs, nearly the level of the 2005 event that destroyed the three bridges in Gunlock. Farther downstream, it produced about $10 million in damage costs, but Gunlock was spared. “It’s worth it ten times over!” Leavitt said. “It’s a ‘can’t do without’ bridge. The flood of 2010 was bad, but it wasn’t enough water to even test that bridge. They’ve done such a good job I don’t think it will ever wash out.”

In May 2010, the Iron Man Triathlon used the Gunlock Road area for the 26-mile biking leg of the competition. Cyclists from all over the country arrived in Utah for the qualifying event, bringing an economic boom to the larger town of St. George and the surrounding areas. Local ranchers use the road to move cattle from winter pastures to summer fields. Other tourists use the road while following the Santa Fe Trail. For the locals, it’s the way they get to work as well as how emergency vehicles can get to them.

FEMA's LPDM funding brought new life to the little community, and restored essential ingress and egress routes to the north for emergency services as well as daily errands.

Last updated June 3, 2020