Safety of Canal Questioned Following Divers' Deaths

Safety of Canal Questioned Following Divers' Deaths

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PROVO, Utah (AP) -- Following the deaths of two brothers who tried to scuba dive in an inverted siphon on the Murdock Canal at Lehi last week, officials are calling again for enclosure of the open-water channel.

There is conflicting information on the number of deaths on the Murdock Canal, but Beverley Heffernan, environment group chief for the Bureau of Reclamation Provo office, said she remembers 14 deaths over the past 20 years along the 21-mile-long canal. The bureau owns the canal but leases the maintenance and the use to the Provo River Water Users Association.

A proposal to enclose the Murdock Canal, which provides secondary irrigation water to parts of Utah and Salt Lake counties, was in the works well before Byron and Ashton Hobbs died Oct. 1 after swimming into the inverted siphon.

Association officials have applied to acquire ownership of the canal and have been meeting with area community leaders to get support for the enclosure.

Keith Denos, general manager of the association, said that in a few weeks, officials will travel to Washington to ask Congress to transfer the title.

Denos said ownership of the canal would allow the association to take out tax-exempt bonds to help pay for the enclosure, which is expected to cost $115 million and take four years.

Last week's accident has made canal safety the No. 1 reason to enclose the canal.

"This (accident) may help other people realize the reasons and benefits for this project and the safety issue may get people supporting the ideas," Denos said.

The Murdock Canal is the largest man-made canal in the county. It runs from Provo Canyon to the Point of the Mountain. It has four inverted siphons, which suck the water down into enclosed pipes and then shoot it back out.

Last year, when development started appearing around the Dry Creek portion of the Murdock Canal in Lehi and Highland, the association decided to put up a screen at the entrance to the siphon that could catch debris or people from going into the 1,200-foot tube. There are plans for similar screens at the other three siphon entrances in the county.

"As we become more densely populated we need precautions," Denos said. "The canal used to go through farmlands and orchards and now travels right next to subdivisions."

The 100 gates that lead to the different check points along the canal must remain open from April to October so the water master can access the canal, Denos said. But without regular patrolling of the canal, the open road gates mean easy access for anyone.

Lehi police Sgt. Jeff Swenson said enforcement of trespassing at the canal is difficult because the canal is far off the road and can't be easily seen from a car traveling on city streets.

Three months ago, he wrote five trespassing tickets after he was notified that teenagers were swimming and using motorized vehicles to pull wave boards in the water.

"The enclosure is a good idea," Swenson said. "I know people swim in that canal and it is so dangerous."

Heffernan said there are no-trespassing and no-swimming signs clearly posted, but if people want to illegally use the canal they will.

"We can put up and repair fences but if they are determined to get in they will," she said.

If the Murdock Canal were enclosed, trails could be built over it so that people could use the space for recreation, Denos said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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