OAKLEY, Utah — After a deadly Memorial Day weekend that saw a small girl and two adults swept away to their deaths, Utah authorities are warning people to stay away from raging, icy rivers dangerously swollen by a snowy winter and wet spring.
The conditions have also triggered flood alerts and led officials to offer sand bags to homeowners in parts of northern Utah, where some rivers are expected to reach their highest levels in the coming days.
Rivers in northern Utah are moving about 7 to 10 miles an hour, the fastest speeds in five years, said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. He said it’s the equivalent of roughly 6,800 pounds of water hitting you every second.
The rivers are swelling with fast-running water because the snow runoff from mountain peaks is around twice its normal amount in northern Utah, McInerney said.
The river water may look tantalizing to people who want to cool down during the hot days of early summer, but it is so cold that it would take less than two minutes for people who jump in to catch hypothermia, he said.
At least six people have drowned in Utah’s waterways this year, and three were under age 9, McInerney said. The state averages about nine child drowning deaths each year.
A 4-year-old girl, her mother and a good Samaritan died in Utah on Monday after the child fell from a rock and was swept away in the Provo River and several people jumped in to help her.
“They’re the most dangerous places in Utah right now,” McInerney said. “They just don’t see how quick it can take your child or your pet.”
Kayla Rydalch, 23, of Utah takes her 1-year-old son to throw rocks in a river near the ski town of Park City almost every day but is trying to stay away from it this week and decided Wednesday to take him to a playground.
“One step could sweep him away, so we definitely keep our distance,” Rydalch said.
Officials in the county where Park City is located warned homeowners near Weber and Provo rivers that flooding was possible and offered sand bags for pickup at a local Mormon church.
“This year the river’s much higher earlier than we’ve noticed than in the past,” said Jerry Sanders, 73, who lives along the Weber River.
Of the 139 people who drowned from 2011-2015 in Utah, 42 were under age 17, according to data from the Utah Health Department.
“We just try to stress to parents how important it is to just stay away from the water right now,” said Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman for Utah’s health department. “When the spring runoff is coming, our recommendation is to avoid it, to just not go near it.”