Water Pouring out of Rural Utah Dam Through 60-foot Crack, Putting Nearby Town at Risk

Wim De Gent
By Wim De Gent
April 11, 2024US News
Water Pouring out of Rural Utah Dam Through 60-foot Crack, Putting Nearby Town at Risk
Crews use heavy machinery to place boulders downstream of the cracked Panguitch Lake Dam to reinforce the wall, in Panguitch, Utah on April 10, 2024. (Matt Call/Utah Division of Water Rights via AP)

Officials told local residents to prepare for possible evacuation after water began gushing from a 60-foot crack in the Panguitch Lake Dam on Monday. Later, they confirmed that the issues were not likely to cause a complete dam failure.

The fissure was discovered in the upper portion of the dam during an inspection Monday night, and state officials announced it to the public on Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, the sheriff’s office escalated their monitoring to a “Level 2 Emergency Situation”—a designation in the middle of the three-prong scale that means there is potential for dam failure.

They clarified that there was no immediate threat to public safety but urged the 1,800 residents of nearby Panguitch to prepare for evacuation.

The Utah Department of Public Safety said in a Wednesday Press release that the 60-foot crack ran horizontally across the upper 2 to 5-foot portion of the dam. High water levels and ice pressure from the frozen reservoir caused the crack, tilting the upper part of the dam forward.

NTD Photo
Ice pressure caused the upper portion of Panguitch Dam to crack and tilt forward. (Courtesy of Utah Department of Public Safety)

“The main portion of the dam is intact,” the department stated. “The affected area is an expansion that was added to the top of the dam in the 1930s/40s. If a failure did occur, only this top 2-5 feet would likely breach.”

“A complete dam breach is not likely or anticipated.”

A list of evacuation procedures was passed out at a Wednesday evening town meeting to mitigate panic.

Large rocks are being trucked in and placed on the downstream side of the dam to support the wall, and the work is proceeding apace.

“The Garfield County Road Department has made immense progress in building a buttress,” the Garfield County Sheriff’s office posted on Facebook. “Several feet of fill material has been placed in front of the dam and work is continuing to progress.”

By Wednesday evening, workers had covered nearly 45 feet of the crack with boulders.

“I can’t say that the emergency situation is entirely averted, but I’m very, very encouraged by the progress we’ve made today,” Everett Taylor, an assistant state engineer for dam safety with the Utah Division of Water Rights, told residents on Wednesday.

Trenches have been cut in the ice to release pressure on the dam and allow the ice to retreat, while water is being released at nearly 260 cubic feet per second to draw down the 1,200 acres reservoir below the crack—a process that is expected to take several more days, Mr. Taylor said.

About 2 feet of water remained above the crack as of Wednesday evening.

As a precautionary measure, Highway 143 was shut down, and another road was closed on Wednesday due to “high amounts of spring runoff.”

No rain is forecast until Saturday.

NTD Photo
Trenches have been put into the ice to release pressure on Panguitch dam (Courtesy of Utah Department of Public Safety)

If a breach should occur, state and local law enforcement will work with the Red Cross to evacuate Panguitch, which sits about 10 miles downstream from the dam. Another tiny town, Circleville, is farther downstream and faces a lower flood risk.

Sgt. Jacob Cox of the Utah Highway Patrol, which has been tasked with helping prepare the town in case of an evacuation, told residents Wednesday that they should have ample time to gather their belongings and evacuate safely.

“This can be orderly,” he said. “If the notice is that the dam has broken or breached, we have time. The estimation is roughly two hours before those floodwaters are really inundating the town.”

According to the National Inventory of Dams, the Panguitch Dam was constructed in 1872. The dam was made taller in the 1930s and 1940s to expand its reservoir. There were no previous concerns regarding the dam’s structural integrity, and the crack came as a surprise, Mr. Taylor said.

Panguitch Mayor Kim Soper urged residents to steer clear of the creek receiving runoff from the reservoir, warning that the water level is much higher than usual and is a danger to children.

He teared up as he recalled standing in the same gymnasium in 2017 to prepare evacuation plans as a wildfire ravaged southern Utah.

“We got through that, and we’re going to get through this,” Mr. Soper assured his community. “It’s just a different emergency.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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