Utah Dam Safety Update

Two dam crises in the West made headlines in February:

  • The earthen Twentyone Mile dam in Elko County, Nevada failed following heavy rains. There were no injuries reported, but a state highway was closed and property damage occurred.
  • The Oroville Dam in California, the tallest dam in the United States, saw extensive damage from storms in February. The governor of California declared a state of emergency and over 180,000 people were evacuated from their homes downstream from the dam.

What are the chances that Utah could face a similar crisis with one of the many dams in the state?

An article posted on KSL.com on February 13 said that no state-inspected dams are currently a cause for concern, according to Dave Marble, assistant state engineer overseeing dam safety.

Marble noted that about 50 large Utah dams have been upgraded in the last 20 years to address seismic issues, seepage, and spillway capacity. He said that most dam owners are “very responsible” about safety issues and maintenance.

As this winter’s heavier-than-normal snowpack melts, the water puts extra pressure on dams and spillways. Marble points out that spillways are designed to relieve pressure as reservoirs fill. He said that dam safety officials are always vigilant but there is currently no cause for elevated concern.

The Utah Division of Water Rights maintains dam safety information on its website, waterrights.utah.gov. If you visit the site, please note that dams are designated as “high hazard dams” not because they are unsafe, but because their failure could result in loss of life and significant property damage. A dam in a densely populated area would probably be considered a “high hazard dam” regardless of the actual condition of the dam.