'It looks a lot better than it did,' officials say of Panguitch Lake dam situation

Crews build a buttress by the damaged portion of the Panguitch Lake dam on Wednesday. Utah engineers said they are encouraged by the progress made to repair the dam after damage was discovered on Monday.

Crews build a buttress by the damaged portion of the Panguitch Lake dam on Wednesday. Utah engineers said they are encouraged by the progress made to repair the dam after damage was discovered on Monday. (Garfield County Sheriff's Office)

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PANGUITCH — Utah engineers say there are indications the damage found at the Panguitch Lake dam on Monday may not be as severe as initially feared.

West Panguitch Irrigation and Reservoir Company workers found cracks in the Garfield County dam during an inspection Monday night. The cracks were found about 2 to 5 feet from the top of the dam, but subsequent reviews indicate the rest of the 28-foot dam appears to be intact, said Michael Drake, deputy state engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights.

While a partial breach is still possible, state officials say a total dam breach "is not likely or anticipated."

"Throughout the day we've received encouraging news (that) we hope is indicating that the situation with the dam is improving," Drake told KSL.com on Wednesday. "The crews and all of the people down there continue to work on that situation. ... It's something that we will continue to watch and monitor."

A three-part plan is also in place to reduce remaining risks and handle the situation, said Everett Taylor, assistant state engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights, who is over dam safety, during an emergency town hall meeting held Wednesday evening.

Crews have spent the past two days cutting ice throughout the reservoir to help ease tension on the dam, while water managers have also increased releases from the reservoir. About 258 cubic feet of water per second are now being released from the dam, which Drake said is about the most that can be released without roadway impacts downstream. State officials estimate it may take about eight to 10 days to get the reservoir level below the damaged area.

Workers started placing stabilizing material along the damaged area where the dam had started to rotate and tilt, as well. Taylor said the dam is in a better position Wednesday night after all of these efforts.

City and county officials also said they are encouraged by the progress that has been made in mitigating the dam's damage.

"We don't take it lightly putting you under this stress, but it looks a lot better than it did yesterday," said Garfield County Sheriff Eric Houston. "I feel a lot better where we're at. I trust the plan we're implementing; it looks like it's working."

The sheriff's office issued a "Level 2" emergency alert Tuesday, calling on Panguitch residents to be prepared for an evacuation should one be ordered. That would come if officials believe a dam failure is imminent.

If the dam is breached and an evacuation is needed, Houston said alarms will sound in the city, and county deputies and Utah Highway Patrol troopers will go door to door to check for people in their homes. Officials said it is anticipated it would take two- to- three hours for the water from the dam to reach the city, so if an evacuation occurs, residents are encouraged to be calm and orderly, and not rush.

Sandbags are available at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stake center in Panguitch for residents who wish to use them. Evacuation plans and maps are available online. Both Panguitch and Garfield County issued emergency declarations, which enable the community to request state or federal funds if necessary while tackling the emergency situation.

Panguitch Mayor Kim Soper got emotional when he talked about how "overwhelming" the outpouring of support has been from surrounding cities and within the community. Even though people want to help, he said they should leave it to the "emergency folks." He also said that he wants everyone to make sure they are informed and safe, and "we will pick up the pieces later."

This emergency, he added, reminds him of dealing with a fire at Brian Head in 2017.

"We got through that, and we're gonna get through this," he said at the meeting.

State engineers were alerted about the damage shortly after it was discovered. They've helped local teams monitor the dam for any potential breaches. Drake said the primary focus right now is the safety of downstream communities."

While the controlled releases aim to alleviate concerns over a partial breach, Panguitch officials cautioned residents and visitors to stay away from Panguitch Creek as the water level is high and fast with the runoff underway. A flash flood watch that the National Weather Service issued for the region on Tuesday remains in place.

Earlier in the day, Justin Shirley, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, issued an emergency change to the Utah Fishing Guidebook on Wednesday, immediately closing Panguitch Lake to all fishing "until further notice" because of the ongoing safety concerns. It's considered a premiere fishing spot in the region, offering species like rainbow trout, Bear Lake cutthroat trout and tiger trout.

"Public safety is a top priority for us, and we want to deter anglers and others from visiting the area at this time," Shirley said in a statement.

Panguitch Lake was a natural lake before it was turned into a reservoir through a series of projects that began as early as 1885, according to the state. The portion that was damaged is believed to have been completed in the 1930s or 1940s.

Drake said the reservoir is an important piece of infrastructure for the area in southwest Utah, so long-term plans to repair it will begin once the emergency is settled. With an above-normal snowpack in the region, it's possible that the reservoir could refill this year.

"We'll just have to see how we depart this emergency situation and then start to make plans (for the future)," he said. "It's hard to make any conclusions ... so we'll see what the future holds."

Contributing: Cassidy Wixom

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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