Town Unites To Fight a Floodplain Development

Town Unites To Fight a Floodplain Development
Photo by Johnathan Ciarrocca / Unsplash

By Mary Moran, Writers on the Range

Moab, Utah is a growing town of 5,300 that several million people visit each year to tour nearby Arches and Canyonlands national parks, ride mountain bikes or raft the Colorado River.

Like any western resort town, it desperately needs affordable housing. What locals say it doesn’t need is a high-end development on a sandbar projecting into the Colorado River, where groves of cottonwoods, willows and hackberries flourish.

“Delusional,” shameful” or “outrageous” is what many locals call this Kane Creek Preservation and Development project, some sending letters of outrage to the weekly Moab Times-Independent and Moab Sun News. Developers plan 580 luxury housing units and a business park on the floodplain. 

The 180-acre site is less than two miles downstream of Moab along a cracked asphalt road that’s barely two lanes. The development site and the unpredictable river are bounded by looming canyon walls. The road turns to dirt at the downstream end of the site before heading up Kane Creek, a popular mountain biking, hiking and four-wheeling area.

Just upstream of the site, there’s a riverside BLM campground and the mouth of cottonwood-shaded Moonflower Canyon, with its ancient petroglyph panels. 

I first saw this floodplain site in April 1984 when it was underwater. Moab’s former Mosquito Abatement Manager Bob Phillips reports he canoed the site in 1995.

By mid-January of this year, a petition fighting the development, created by Moab resident Laura Long, had 1,200 local signatures. More than 13,000 other signatures came from visitors to Moab or former residents who have their own connections to this land of canyons and slickrock. Access the petition and more information here: https://kanecreekwatch.org/.

A Jan. 16 Grand County Commission meeting about the development packed the chambers, the hallway and Zoom lines. The crowds of largely younger activists made the hearts of us older residents swell.  

Like many resort towns in the west, Moab is rich in beauty, nature and outdoor activities. It’s why locals live and work here, and it’s what we care about preserving. But housing is hard to come by for working people.

Many live in their cars and vans. Local government and nonprofits pursue admirable, but relatively small-scale projects, to build workforce and low-income housing. Unfortunately, this high-end project won’t bring us what we need.

How was this project approved? It’s complicated, but in 1992, the Grand County Commission mistakenly granted rights to build dense commercial and residential buildings on this property, instead of just the campground the former owners wanted. Developers are now exploiting the mistake.

The project has approval to haul in 8 to 10 feet of fill to bury the riparian soils and reach the required one-foot elevation above the designated 100-year floodplain. The County Commission hoped to exercise some control by governing the development’s water and sewer treatment plants, but the state Legislature intervened and allowed developers to run their own district instead.

“Re-grading” is underway and expected to take more than a year. It is major earth-moving, building up the floodplain and the adjacent Kane Creek Road.

Now, drivers and mule deer must watch for haul trucks that move cobbles, gravel and sand onto the floodplain. Migrating and resident birds that nest there may need to make new plans this spring.

Moab resident and Colorado River expert John Weisheit, along with others, have documented evidence of the Colorado River flooding in the past, some floods four times greater than any river volume in living memory.

Future, smaller floods may flood the site with upwelling from rising groundwater. Larger floods will most likely occur as climate change brings more extreme weather events. The entire development could be inundated, causing property loss and a lot of debris flowing downstream and into Canyonlands National Park.

This floodplain should be left alone. Think of the coming of floods small and large, unsolved housing issues, potential sewage-treatment plant failures, lawsuits, road issues, disrupted dark skies, destruction of a wide swath of critical wildlife habitat in the desert, and, of course, heartbreak.

Besides reading like an absurd satire, it sounds like a very poor investment.

Mary Moran is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She lives in Moab where she is a hiker and birder. For 20 years, she worked for Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

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