81 High-risk dams in Utah require safety improvements. Their repair could cost $450 million

Twenty-four of 223 dangerous dams are currently being rehabilitated, but a lawmaker still called a state engineer’s report “very sobering”.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Photo taken Thursday, November 7, 2019 shows Mountain Dell Dam, 5 miles east of Salt Lake City. The dam is one of more than 200 high-hazard dams in the state and repairs are ongoing.

In the early summer of 1976, the Teton Dam in Idaho failed.

Sugar City, Rexburg, and Wilford were flooded as water poured out of the dam at a rate of one million cubic feet per second. The disaster killed 11 people.

In response, the US Bureau of Reclamation created the National Dam Safety Program.

More than a decade later, in 1989, the Quail Creek Dike near Saint George failed.

“Fortunately, there were no fatalities,” said State Engineer and Director of the Department of Water Rights Teresa Wilhelmsen, State Engineer and Director of the Department of Water Rights. She provided an update on statewide dam safety Tuesday during a legislative interim meeting of the Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Assignments.

But the failure at Quail Creek dam “started and really propelled Utah’s State Dam Safety Program,” Wilhelmsen said.

There are now around 6,500 dams on the state inventory and inspectors check more than 300 operational dams each year. “We spend a good part of the summer out there inspecting these dams with the owners,” Wilhelmsen said

Utah does not inspect or oversee federally owned hydroelectric dams such as Deer Creek Dam or Jordanelle Dam on the Provo River.

“We’re talking about expanding the state’s infrastructure and building more,” Wilhelmsen said, “but I think it’s just as important that we keep the dams that we have in safe condition because they have tremendous utility.” offer.”

The focus of the Utah State Dam Safety program is on high-risk dams. A dam is classified as “highly dangerous” if its failure is likely to result in the death of people, Wilhelmsen told lawmakers. This rating has nothing to do with the condition of the dam, but with the consequences. A dam is considered “moderate hazard” if its failure would result in significant property damage but not death, and “low hazard” would be some property damage.

There are 223 high-risk dams in Utah, and 101 of those dams require upgrading to meet minimum standards. Of these 101 dams, 24 are already in the construction or planning phase. That leaves 81 high-risk dams that do not yet meet government standards.

At the meeting, Wilhelmsen and Candice Hasenyager, director of the Department of Water Resources, told lawmakers that with current funding levels of about $3.8 million per year, it could take about 120 years to modernize all the dams in the state. However, it could be longer as more people move to areas near dams and they fall into the high risk category. Additionally, inflation and evolving safety standards could make repairs even more expensive in the future.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) The Mountain Dell Dam in Parleys Canyon, 5 miles east of Salt Lake City, is one of the state’s high-risk dams being rehabilitated for safety reasons. In this Thursday, November 7, 2019 file photo, workers on behalf of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, which owns and operates the structure, install a new lining system to prevent seepage from the reservoir. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“It’s very sobering,” said committee chair Senator Scott D. Sandall, R-Tremonton.

On average, rehabilitating a dam costs the state $4.5 million. Under Utah law, the state engineer cannot force a “joint irrigation company or water user association” to upgrade its dam to meet minimum standards unless the Board of Water Resources offers to cover 80% of the cost .

Federally and for-profit privately owned dams are not eligible for the state’s grant funding program.

Dam safety is a concern across the country — in 2022, the Associated Press found that more than 2,200 high-risk dams in the United States were “in poor or unsatisfactory condition.” The Association of State Dam Safety Officials last year estimated that $24.04 billion would be required to remediate high-risk non-state dams statewide.

Development below dams is an additional concern.

“If you’re a state engineer and you’re looking for a house, the two most important criteria for your criteria are: are you below a dam or below a canal?” Wilhelmsen said. “You don’t buy there. But people do. They live where they want to live.”

For more information, see the Utah Dam Safety Program and Dam Safety Promotion Presentations.

Justin Scaccy

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