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Civil engineers give average grades to Utah infrastructure

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SALT LAKE CITY — A first of its kind, comprehensive analysis of Utah's infrastructure by local civil engineers delivered the state an overall grade of C+, finding bridges and roads in fairly good shape but concluding levees and canals are in dire need of attention.

A report card prepared by the Utah Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers graded Utah in 10 areas and was presented Tuesday at the Utah Capitol during a news conference.

"Most of these (canals) were built 100 years ago, and some over 150 years ago, and they were built to serve a different set of conditions," said David Eckhoff, with the professional organization. "Many of our urban areas are now overgrown with these canals."

Eckhoff said the state need only look to the catastrophic failure of a Logan canal in 2009 that killed a mother and her two children or a Washington County levee breach that caused extensive damage to know the costs that come as a result of some of these earthen and outdated systems, Eckhoff said.

Overall, the report gave Utah a D+ on its system of canals, noting there are between 5,300 and 8,000 miles of canals in the state operated with little regulatory oversight. In fact, canals are largely self-regulated by roughly 1,400 companies that are operating on diminished budgets, according to the report.

Canals and earthen levees were put in place to support an agricultural society that has largely transformed along the Wasatch Front, Eckhoff added. Levees received the worst grade out of the categories, garnering a D-.

"All of us want to think we have one foot on the farm, but we don't live there anymore," he said.

Utah's highest grades were for bridges, roads and transit, all of which received a B+, followed by dams at a B-.

Some of the findings in the report note:
  • One-third of Utah's bridges will reach the end of their 50-year design life by the end of this decade.
  • Utah has 201 high-hazard dams, meaning they are vulnerable to failure that could result in loss of life or significant property damage.
  • Significant deterioration has occurred in sewage collection systems that are 60 to 70 years old and far beyond their expected operating life.

Bob Lamoreaux, local president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the B grades given in the major categories are good grades and indicate a tradition of infrastructure replacement and repair that has largely kept pace with societal needs.

"A" grades are tough to get, he said, and would indicate no nagging needs, so news conference participants were quick to recognize the strong investments already made to foster a robust transportation system, provide stewardship over the state's 900 dams and develop viable transit services.

"When a transportation system works the way it should, you don't notice it," said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council. "Travel time has been kept in check even as our population has surged."

In other areas, solid waste infrastructure received a B-; and hazardous waste, and wastewater and storm systems each were graded C+. The state's infrastructure for drinking water and supply received a C.

Despite Utah doing a better job than many states, the needs are still many, the report said.

The civil engineers involved in the analysis consulted with state agencies and other groups to arrive at the daunting conclusion that it would take $60 billion to take care of all the infrastructure needs in the state over the next 20 years.

Eckhoff said that works out to be $40,000 per family.

"Utah's infrastructure and what we do with it is so important to our future," he stressed.

The society came out with a number of recommendations, noting that it is no longer adequate to treat infrastructure needs as individual components of a system but rather they should be viewed as an integrated whole.

Utah's rapid shift toward urbanization means leaders and planners will have to be more innovative and willing to address aging systems with candor that includes risk modeling and corporate-style accountability.

"Infrastructure will continue to decline," Lamoreaux said. "We're proposing that we stay ahead." Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba


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