Armchair investigators will have a field day deciding who to blame for the New Year's Eve flood following the breach of a dike at the Quail Creek reservoir near St. George.
Accusations are already flying concerning the breach of the $23.5 million dam, which has leaked almost from the time of its completion in 1985. Criticism has centered on the presence of gypsum in the bedrock upon which the dam is built. Gypsum is solid when dry, but dissolves when it becomes wet.Although state and county officials have worked diligently to plug each new hole with a concrete grouting material, the cause of mishap will likely return to the initial construction of the dam. And, the fact is, concerns about the gypsum were expressed at the time the dam was built.
But that's not to say state or county officials are to blame. In the sense that every effect has a cause, it is certain that something state and private engineers either did or did not do caused the mishap.
But blame requires knowledge that one's actions are wrong, and whether government officials should have known better is a very complicated question.
Before the Quail Creek Dam was built, private consultants prepared engineering and geological reports. The reports were then reviewed by a panel of experts from the State Division of Water Resources, which provided the funding. The Division of Water Rights was then required by law to review and approve the plans.
Apparently neither those who prepared the reports nor those who reviewed them believed there were insurmountable engineering or geological problems.
So, if it turns out that the Quail Creek Dam was ill-conceived, the debate ought to center on whether the planning and construction process is sufficient to ensure the dams are safe. An answer to this concern is crucial because it has a bearing on the construction of other dams, as well as any proposal to rebuild the Quail Creek dam.
Part of the problem in constructing new dams is that all of the best spots have already been taken, thus leaving officials to confront increasingly more difficult engineering problems. As technical difficulties in dam construction mount, perhaps the amount of oversight should increase as well.
In 1986, the Utah Foundation, a non-profit think-tank, suggested that it may be time to begin spending more money for an independent geological and engineering review.
The foundation pointed out that California has an independent review panel to go over engineering plans and suggested that Utah might benefit from such a system.
At the very least, the foundation suggested, the state should have another consulting firm review the reports, rather than relying on its own agency.
In the light of the Quail disaster, that seems like very good advice.