UTAH (ABC4) — As record runoff continues to flow into Utah reservoirs, it puts some stress on the dams. Water is being released through many dams across the state to prevent runoff from overfilling the reservoirs. There are roughly 700 dams in Utah, and 200 are considered high-hazard.

The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for ensuring the safety of more than 50 dams in the Beehive State. The rest are all under the supervision of the Dam Safety Program under the Utah Division of Water Rights. This isn’t to say that DWRi owns and operates the dams, but it does have the authority to regulate safety measures of the dams. Every dam falls under one of three risk categories: high, moderate or low.  

“It does not indicate the condition of the dam,” said State Assistant Engineer Everett Taylor, who oversees dam safety and stream alterations for DWRi. “[The rating system] really speaks to what the consequence of the failure of that dam would be.”  

Of the 700 dams in the state, roughly 200 are considered high-risk or high-hazard. 

“High-hazard dams, if they fail, would likely result in loss of life,” Taylor said.

Moderate-risk dams would result in heavy damage if they failed, and low-risk dams would result in damage isolated to the owner’s property if they failed.   

Of the 200 high-hazard dams, Taylor said currently about half do not meet state safety standards. The division is working to rehabilitate each dam, but it’s a slow-moving process, in part because of the lack of funding.  

A statement from the Division of Water Rights further explains:  

During the last several decades, there has been a better understanding of how dams function, and new minimum standards have been established.  In order to provide for public safety, the Legislature has provided grant funding since 1992 in various amounts to the Board of Water Resources to appropriate for dam safety projects. From 1997 to 2007, approximately $4.3 million was appropriated per year. In 2008, the amount was reduced to approximately $700,000. From 2009 to present, funding has been $3.8 million per year for high hazard dam rehabilitations. These projects become necessary due to infrastructure aging, hazard creep and standards modernization.

Historically, the cost of each dam safety project has averaged about $2-3 million. At the current level of funding, the state can fund, on average, only one or two dam safety projects each year. With each passing year, inflation chips away at the dollar’s buying power, and the ability to complete projects continues to diminish.  

In order for the remaining high-hazard dams to be brought up to minimum safety standards, an estimated $250 million is needed.  At the current funding rate, this is estimated to take about 66 years. If funding were increased by $6.2 million to a total of $10 million per year, the dams could be upgraded in approximately 25 years.  

The Board of Water Resources will continue to work with the Dam Safety Program to determine which dams are the highest priority and to address these projects as funds allow, but the current level of funding is insufficient to address all the minimum standard issues. As a result, dam safety projects are being delayed due to a lack of funds. Additional funding would accelerate urgent dam safety upgrades. 

“In the meantime, just so people are aware, we do inspect high-hazard dams every year,” Taylor said. “We’re watching for any deteriorating conditions to be aware of those.”

He emphasized that in doing so, the safety program is confident that none of the dams currently pose a threat to Utah residents.  

While the Division of Water Rights inspects the dams, the state doesn’t own all of them. Many have private owners. The owners can be private citizens, power companies, cities, water conservancy districts, etc. Taylor said the safety program works closely with the owners to ensure the dams are in safe, working order.  

One of the organizations the program works with is Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. Like many dam operators, the conservancy district has been strategically releasing water from reservoirs that rely on their dams. This is being done to prevent future flooding.

With the record-breaking snowpack, the watershed has more projected water than many reservoirs, like Pineview, can hold. If this wasn’t done, the reservoir would fill with more water than the dam could hold.

“We monitor that stuff every day,” said Weber Basin Water Conservancy District Assistant General Manager Jon Parry. “We’ve got operators who are going out and making sure that everything is operating like it should. We utilize USGS gaging stations that give us a real-time assessment of the volume of water that’s flowing through dozens of different locations within our drainage.”  

And in April, the Division of Water Rights notified all dam operators of the need to keep debris away from the dams during these strategic water-release operations.

“They would anticipate the predicted inflows into and minimize spillway use and then just the stresses on the dam,” Taylor said.   

The Utah Division of Water Rights has an interactive map that shows all the dams it inspects and the risk category they fall under. That map can be accessed by clicking here.