At least 68 times this century, dams in Utah have failed or come so close to failing that water uncontrollably spewed from behind them washing away
homes and towns and sometimes killing unsuspecting people downstream.Deseret News staff writer Lee Davidson investigated hundreds of federal and state studies and inspection reports about dams in the state.
State and federal records show officials consider a majority of dams above populated areas in Utah as unsafe or are unsure whether they are safe.
Reports show that the same conditions that caused the 68 other dam failures and near failures are all too common among dams near populated areas today. They include spillways that are too small to handle potential runoff, seepage, outlet problems and earthen dams that may not have been compacted properly.
Davidson tracked down reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that examined 101 dams in the state from 1977 to 1981. The corps concluded that 67 two-thirds of all it studied were unsafe, and it was unsure about the safety of 27 others.
The state engineer's office gives somewhat better ratings to dams than the corps did. But Richard B. Hall, state dam safety engineer, still says 27 of the 167 dams above populated areas that his office inspects are unsafe according to modern dam safety criteria.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also gives mediocre or poor ratings to the 15 federal dams in or near the state it recently studied.
An expanded look at this News Extra investigation, titled "Dams in Distress," is on page B1.