'This funding will be put to great use': Utah gets $7.3M in federal dam safety funds

A cofferdam blocks the spillway as repairs continue on the Sevier Bridge Dam at Yuba State Park on June 27, 2023. Utah received close to $7.3 million from the Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dam program to help repair dams.

A cofferdam blocks the spillway as repairs continue on the Sevier Bridge Dam at Yuba State Park on June 27, 2023. Utah received close to $7.3 million from the Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dam program to help repair dams. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah natural resources officials are still working on how they will spend close to $7.3 million recently received from the federal government to improve high-hazard dam safety, hitting a subject brought to the forefront earlier this year.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources received the money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dam program late last month.

The program was created to help local governments and nonprofits plan for or carry out projects that rehabilitate, repair or even remove "high hazard-potential dams," according to FEMA. Leaders of the Utah Division of Water Resources and the Utah Division of Water Rights — two agencies within the Utah Department of Natural Resources umbrella — said they will work together to identify dams that should be prioritized.

"This funding will be put to great use in helping address the minimum safety standards on dams across the state," Utah state engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen said in a statement Monday. "Funding for dam safety is always a top concern for everyone involved."

The funding comes a few months after the state went through a dam safety scare. Flood watches and evacuation notices were issued for communities in and around Panguitch after cracks were found near the top of the Panguitch Lake dam in April. Those alerts were lifted a few days later after emergency mitigation efforts were determined to be effective.

But the dam — one of about 500 owned by private entities — is far from an anomaly.

Everett Taylor, assistant state engineer of dam safety for the Utah Division of Water Rights, told KSL NewsRadio a few weeks after the scare there are about 100 high-hazard dams in need of upgrades. Of those, about 80 dams are awaiting rehabilitation projects, and 20 are in "some phase of rehabilitation."

"High-hazard, if they failed, (means a) high likelihood of loss of life," he said in April.

The federal funding could help make a small dent in the backlog. Utah Division of Water Resources officials noted in January the state's annual dam safety is about $3.8 million, while the average cost to upgrade a dam is about $4.6 million. They said it would take over 100 years to update all the dams at the state's funding rate.

The state's 2025 fiscal year budget ultimately slated $1.3 million for dam safety, but $5 million was also sent toward a project to improve Hyrum Dam in Cache County.

"Aging dam infrastructure and the requirement to meet the minimum dam safety standards make (these federal funds) a welcome sight," Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said Monday. "Dam improvements are imperative to the safety of Utahns, and they are also costly."

No timeline was provided for how and when the funds will be distributed across the state.

The money Utah received was part of the $185.1 million it allocated to 32 states across the U.S. through the Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dam program. Funding for the program came from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

"Dams provide critical, lifesaving support for communities around the nation to prevent flooding and provide a predictable water supply for communities," FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said in a statement on June 26. "This way, future generations will benefit from dams for the flood protection, water supply hydropower, irrigation and recreation they provide."

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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