Utah's canals largely unregulated; state lawmaker wants to change that

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The canal break in Logan over the weekend is not the first to do major damage in Utah, and it has renewed a debate about the fact that canals in Utah are essentially unregulated.

We don't know yet what caused the canal in Logan to break; some believe the hillside it sat on was made unstable by flowing spring water and heavy rainfall. But even problems like that can be solved through proper engineering and maintenance.

Canal breaks over the years have cost lives and done tens of millions of dollars in damages:

  • In 1999, a Riverdale canal broke and damaged or destroyed numerous homes.
  • In 1997, a canal break in Vernal led to a region-wide flood and mud disaster.
  • In 1983 a canal broke in Delta created a huge flood in the desert.

There have also been repeated problems with the Logan canal; it was build decades before homes were put in below.

"How was that housing built without some sort of safety flow or setback or something?" asked Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City.

Utah has 5,300 miles of canals, ranging in size from a large one in Weber County that feeds Willard Bay, to smaller ditches and canals like the one in Logan. Most are owned and operated by groups of farmers who are expected to maintain and inspect them, but the state has no specific requirements for how they're built or maintained.

Now Davis says he wants to launch a discussion aimed at changing state law. Though current law allows the state engineer to inspect canals, Davis says there's no money to actually do it unless a safety issue is called in.

The lack of an inspection program is precisely what Davis wants to fix.

"I think we need a good, strong program in the state," he said.

Tage Flint, president of the Utah Water Users Association, says canal owners do a good job at keeping the waterways safe, but he worries as more and more homes are bing built alongside pioneer-era canals.

"It's always incumbent upon the canal company to make sure their canals are well-maintained, but it's also a responsibility of a local community to plan the responsible development around these canals so there isn't an inherent liability that comes up later," Flint said.

But Davis thinks the state should set engineering standards where lives and property are at stake.

"I think we need to take a look and say, 'OK, engineering-wise, will it hold? What is the ground underneath?'" Davis said.

He says owner inspections would be OK if they follow strict state requirements, but water users wonder how one set of rules could sensibly apply to every Utah canal.

Some irrigation companies, but not all, carry insurance policies to cover themselves against disaster. After the Riverdale disaster 10 years ago, the canal company and its insurers paid out millions in settlements.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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