SALT LAKE CITY — A mudslide that killed a mother and her two children four years ago prompted the Utah Legislature to pass a law aimed at minimizing the risk of canal breaches in urban areas.
But compliance with the 2010 statute is voluntary and requires a canal or irrigation company to adopt a management safety plan only when applying for state money from a revolving loan fund. And the law only calls for the company to submit a letter — not the plan — to the state Division of Water Resources declaring its compliance.
Utah does not have a canal inspection program and no state agency reviews the safety plans.
Murray resident Scott Goodman, whose home was flooded Saturday during a canal break, said he was surprised to learn the state doesn't oversee canal companies.
"That's seriously concerning," he said. "Any normal person would be seriously worried about their lives in a situation like this."
Todd Adams, water resources division assistant director, said the 2010 legislation allows the companies to regulate themselves "so they were somewhat prepared and knew what was going on in their systems."
Noting the law lacks punitive measures, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund called it simply a "message" or "wake-up bill" for canal companies to inspect their waterways.
"It might be a good time now seeing that this has happened again that we get a report back from some of those folks to see what they're finding and maybe take another look at it," said the Monroe Republican who sponsored the measure in the Senate. "In thinking about it the past couple of days since the break occurred, I have wondered if they have been able to do as much as they hoped they could."
Canal safety has again become an issue after a torrent of mud, rock and water poured into several homes in Murray over the weekend. The North Jordan Canal Company is trying to determine what caused its ditch to give way.
No one was injured in the Murray breach.
But Jacqueline Leavey and her 12-year-old daughter Abbey Alanis and 14-year-old son Victor Alanis weren't as fortunate when the concrete canal above their home gave way in July 2009. A fatal rush of mud buried them in the house.
Gov. Gary Herbert at the time called for a comprehensive review of the state's approximately 6,000 miles of canals along with sound policy to protect residents.
Discussions in the water resources division's Executive Water Task Force led to the Water Conveyance Facilities Safety Act state lawmakers approved in 2010. The Legislature also passed a companion bill requiring cities and counties to notify canal companies of proposed development with 100 feet of the waterway. The companies must also provide cities and counties with a description of the location of their canals.
Salt Lake City water attorney David Hartvigsen said there was a lot of talk when the bills were drafted about making the management safety plan mandatory. Officials discussed applying the dam safety inspection program to canals but the state didn't have the money to require a review and ensure compliance, he said.
"The conclusion was the best approach was to make it voluntary and the incentive was you don't get funding if you don't do it," he said. "Obviously, it would be nice to mandate it."
Okerlund said requiring safety inspections would reveal "millions and millions of dollars" in work that could be done.
"You could cement every canal in the state and that might help some. But the Logan canal was cement and it still failed," he said. "The question really is what can you do to be effective without just plain breaking the bank and breaking these little agricultural companies."
With a legislatively set May 1 deadline approaching, Adams said about 50 canal companies to date have notified the state water division about their safety management plans. He estimated Utah has 1,300 to 1,400 canal and irrigation companies, most of them small and in rural or less populated parts of the state where the risk to life and property is minimal.
The the Strawberry Highline Canal Company in Utah County is among those that have inspected its waterways and developed a safety plan.
"We didn't learn anything we didn't know," said general manager Jamison Thornton. "Most canal companies know where their potential problem areas are and keep an eye on them pretty closely."
Thornton said he doesn't think mandatory safety management plans are necessary.
"The issue you have, there are lots and lots of canals within the state and very few of them have the conditions of the one in Murray that had the failure with so many homes right on top of them," he said. "It's hard to place a burden on the canal company entirely when they had no choice in the development that came up around them."
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