The meandering river and unstable soil create a volatile combination that makes development along the Virgin River especially dangerous. The City of St. George understood the dangers, but faced great opposition from developers and citizens who didn’t believe that flooding dangers existed. The city’s goal was to back people away from the river for their own safety, while at the same time, create a recreational amenity with the purchased land.
To accomplish the goal, the city council first tried to pass an ordinance after the flood, which would have prevented further development along the river, but it failed in a 3-2 vote. So instead of a prohibitive law, in 1990, the small planning group inadvertently changed the attitude of an entire community by drawing a line in the sand—literally—on a map. It was a line for a walking trail along an 8-mile stretch of the river that would provide adequate set back to keep people out of harm’s way.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds were used to acquire property along the badly damaged riverbanks of the Virgin River to stop further development. It was the first time FEMA had ever awarded such a grant to a community. The city built a walking trail. That small investment in the City of St. George is now a trail system that has expanded to 43 miles and has created a new, vibrant social mentality, and many economic opportunities for the community. The trail is also a “service road” for a city sewer line and for fire protection access.
After the first section of trail was completed a survey was sent out to the citizens to determine if they liked it. Kent Perkins, director of Leisure Services for the City of St. George, said most of the surveys came back with one word: “More!” The initial distrust and opposition to the project had been healed, and the public loved the new opportunity to enjoy the open space in their community.
“It’s created a different mindset,” Perkins said. “And because so many sections of the river trail are now armored against the flooding, we have fewer losses when it does flood.” Negotiating for more easements continues, and developers have received requests from residents for more and better access to the trails.
For 87-year-old Doyle Ohlwiler, who wasn’t very active before retiring to St. George, walking the trail has become not just a part of his daily regime, but it has helped him and his wife become part of their community.
“I walk about two miles each day. If we didn’t have that trail I’d probably have to walk on the street. People are friendly on that trail. You greet them. It’s a very busy place. We stop and talk with the people we pass," Ohlwiler said. "There are women on bikes, men on bikes, us walkers. We see Canadian Geese all along it, and on the driving range. Lots of senior citizens use it.” Ohlwiler was one of the citizens in favor of expanding the trails. He loves where he lives and is more active because the trails are easily accessible for him and his wife.
The initial seed money from FEMA was $57,000 for property acquisition, and it was also the first ever HMGP money awarded to a community. Over subsequent years, the city got additional funding through other sources to continue to develop the trail system used by cyclists, equestrians, joggers and walkers. Social organizations and volunteers have a vested interest in their community trail system and even help landscape it. Now extending to the Santa Clara River and into the surrounding hills, the trail is used by some residents as an alternative transportation route throughout the community. It not only beautifies the area, but has enhanced environmental quality, providing nesting areas for endangered species of birds and fish.
FEMA’s HMGP is a cost-share program that requires a state or local contribution for grant funding. The State provided $155,000 in hazard mitigation matching funds for the trails project and the local community donated $400,000 in land valuation. Although FEMA’s share was a relatively small amount, the affect on the community was huge.
Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding can help turn a disaster into an opportunity. The City of St. George is proof of that.