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Utah's dam director works hard to minimize flooding risks

By Alex Cabrero | Posted - Aug 22nd, 2013 @ 9:25am

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SALT LAKE CITY — When a wall of water and mud broke free from the Santa Clara dam, all eyes were on the regulators whose job it is to make sure this doesn't happen. It's a difficult job and there are hundreds of dams in Utah. And despite the jokes that come with being the state's "Dam Director", the man in charge takes his job very seriously.

Almost every day, it's the same thing for Dave Marble, Utah Dam Safety director. But he says he'd rather have a lifetime of same days than have one day where something went terribly wrong.

"When everything is going right, nobody knows what we're doing," Marble said. "It's when something goes wrong, that it becomes an issue."

When everything is going right, nobody knows what we're doing. It's when something goes wrong, that it becomes an issue.

–Dave Marble, Utah Dam Safety director

It's his job, and the job of a handful of inspectors on his staff, to check every dam in Utah and make sure they're working properly.

"It's not just property, but people's lives are at risk because of these structures," he said.

There are roughly 1,800 dams in Utah. Of those dams, 400 are high-risk, 400 are moderate, and roughly 1000 are low risk.

High-risk dams get inspected every year. Moderate dams are inspected every two years and low risk dams every five years.

"We probably conduct about 280 inspections a year total," Marble said.

Overview of dams in Utah:
  • About 1,800 dams in Utah
  • 400 high-risk dams, inspected every year
  • 400 moderate-risk dams, inspected every two years
  • 1,000 low-risk dams, inspected every five years
  • Utah Dam Safety inspects about 280 dams a year

The Fairview Dam in Sanpete County is a high risk dam. It's not because it might fail, but because if it does, there are homes below. It was put on the list of about 40 dams in Utah that need to be rehabilitated because it was leaking about 400 gallons a minute.

"The whole goal is to minimize the seepage, because, with a dam, you can't stop seepage," said Eric Dixon with Franson Civil Engineering. "Water finds a way through anything. even a concrete dam, it finds its way through joints and cracks."

Marble also says there will never be zero risk with a dam. No matter what it's made out of, there will always be some risk. He says its his job to get to as close to zero as possible.

The dam in Santa Clara was recently rebuilt. Last year it broke, sending water into homes and businesses below.

Marble had inspected the dam a few months before it broke, noting there were several rodent holes that needed to be fixed, but a heavy rainstorm changed everything.

"There's an element of risk, and it's hard to eliminate that risk," Marble said. "But we work every day to minimize that risk."

That's why inspections are important to try and catch little things before they become big problems.


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