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Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio, File

No Utah dams currently a cause for concern, official says

By Ben Lockhart  |  Posted Feb 13th, 2017 @ 8:34pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite significant dam crises in California and Nevada this month, no state-inspected dams in Utah are currently considered to be a cause of concern, according to the state's leading expert in dam safety.

"From everything that we can determine … we've not been able to see anything that's happening, other than what you'd expect to be happening," said Dave Marble, assistant state engineer overseeing dam safety.

Although the state of Utah doesn't own or maintain its own dams, Marble said, it oversees and inspects more than 200 of them that are considered "high hazard" — not because they are in bad shape, but because of their potential to create devastation if they were to fail.

"There's an ongoing effort on a regular basis … to make sure that they're being taken care of," he said Monday.

Following days of wet weather, the Twentyone Mile Dam in Elko County, Nevada, failed last week, flooding much of the nearby town of Montello. A large swath of Nevada Route 233 was washed out only 4 miles from the state border with Utah.

In Northern California, tens of thousands of people have evacuated from the Sierra Nevada foothills following significant damage to the Lake Oroville dam. Two of its spillways — needed to divert water after a highly unusual amount of winter moisture and recent snowmelt — have sustained damage.

The Montello flooding was of particular concern to Utahns in the far northwestern part of the state who were unable to enter Nevada on state Route 30, which was closed at the state line. Filled up reservoirs in nearby Box Elder County are working as planned, Marble said, though dam inspectors have spent a lot of time in the area and "we're always concerned about where the highest pressures against the dam are going to be found when (water) levels are high."

"Several of the reservoirs are full and spilling as they're designed to do," he said. "We're always concerned about all (the dams), but we don't have any reason for elevated concern. … We have spillways that are being activated and that sort of thing."

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Some of Utah's largest reservoirs are inspected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, including Strawberry Reservoir — protected by the Soldier Creek dam — and Jordanelle Reservoir, both in Wasatch County. Marble said others that would pose a significant risk to Utahns if they failed are the Little Dell Reservoir dam, north of I-80 in east Salt Lake County, and the Otter Creek Reservoir dam in Piute County, about 50 miles south of Richfield.

Marble said about 50 large Utah dams, many of which were first built in the early 20th century, have been upgraded in the past 20 years with respect to seismic stability, spillway capacity and seepage issues. Currently, about two or three dams are singled out per year as priorities for bringing up to current safety standards.

The owners and operators of those dams are only required by law to make those upgrades, Marble said, when a grant is obtained covering 80 percent of their cost. He reiterated that he believes Utah's dam operators are conscientious about not letting the structures fall into disrepair.

"Dam owners, I would say, are very responsible," Marble said. "The dams represent their livelihood too and they understand what we're doing and why we're (inspecting them)."

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