While the arduous chore of cleanup following the New Year's Eve failure of the Quail Creek Reservoir dike is well under way, questions about the dam's safety are just starting to be asked.
Hearings have already opened to determine the cause of the dike's failure as well as ascertaining whether the main dam that still stands is safe in its present condition, or whether additional monitoring of the site is needed.One of the questions near the top of everyone's "Want to know" list is whether state water planners consulted adequately with the Utah Geological and Mineral Survey when they planned and built Quail Creek Reservoir.
Or did the state Division of Water Resources downplay the concerns of UGMS officials regarding potentially serious problems at the dam site?
Memos in UGMS files show the survey tried without success to initiate further consultations to discuss these concerns with other state officials - both before the proj-ect was built and while it was being built.
One attempt was made as late as October 1984, a year after construction began.
Whether consultations between the two offices were adequate enough is a subjective call, however.
Bruce N. Kaliser, the geologist who investigated Quail Creek for the survey before the project was built, for one, doesn't think water resources made enough of an effort.
"There clearly wasn't (enough consultation)," said Kaliser, now an independent consultant.
But Kaliser's contentions are disputed by the heads of two agencies involved.
Daniel F. Lawrence, at the time the director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said he thought geological conditions at Quail Creek were recognized and that he didn't consider them insurmountable.
Genevieve Atwood, the survey's director, said she believed reservoir planners understood the geology at the site. So at that point, the problems became an engineering question, rather an a geology one, she said.
Some of the memos in question are addressed to Lawrence, the head of Water Resources, which was active in planning where to locate reservoirs. One is addressed to Robert Morgan, who was with the Division of Water Rights, the state agency responsible for dam safety.
Kaliser said he was concerned as early as 1982 about fractured underground formations and gypsum salt veins at the reservoir site, about nine miles northeast of St. George.
Something - perhaps one or both of these factors - caused the dike to burst just as 1989 began.
A hint that leakage through faults could have caused the Quail Creek disaster is that the first seepage on New Year's Eve was discovered at the dike's base. Water did not start trickling from the face high on the dike.
If these underground flaws existed and were left uncorrected, water might have seeped beneath the dike, following fractures in the underground formations and saturating the dike itself.
The flood peaked at 60,000 cubic feet per second, killing livestock, flooding expensive homes and apartments, destroying bridges, ripping out roads, and dumping silt on farm land. Damage is estimated to be at least $12 million.
Quail Creek got its start when the Washington County Water Conservancy District started lobbying for state loans to finance the project in 1982. Another site with more favorable geology was rejected because federal officials said it would harm the woundfin minnow, an endangered species, and Quail Creek was considered safe.
Kaliser visited the proposed reservoir site on Oct. 7, 1982, examining it for three hours. He said he was so disturbed by what he found that the same day he wrote a memo addressed to Lawrence, to be delivered by Genevieve Atwood, the survey's director.
He asked for more information about a series of potential geological problems.
Kaliser said he also wrote to Lawrence directly the following day, discussing reports that Lawrence had supplied on six projects.
The first one listed was Quail Creek: "There is only the most abbreviated treatment of geology provided," Kaliser complained in the memo. Some crucial data prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was missing, he wrote, asking whether whether another attempt had been made to acquire the data. He added, "I believe it necessary to do everything possible to get them."
On April 11, 1983, Kaliser wrote to Morgan of the Division of Water Rights, analyzing another report on Quail Creek Dam written the previous month. Once again, Kaliser raised serious technical questions and called for better information.
Although construction on the $22 million project began in November 1983, nearly a year later, geologists with the survey still had concerns.
On Oct. 18, 1984, Don Mabey, another survey expert, wrote to Atwood, urging further consultation between the survey and Water Resources. He mentioned that Kaliser sent a memo to Lawrence in 1982.
"There have not been any follow-up requests for Bruce's (Kaliser's) advice as information on the site has been developed," Mabey wrote. "We have heard second-hand reports that geologic problems have been encountered since Bruce's visit."
Also, problems showed up at the Smith-Moorehouse Dam site in Summit County, Mabey wrote. He stressed the importance of keeping Kaliser informed "particularly . . . because the Division of Water Resources does not have an experienced engineering geologist on their staff."
Atwood then wrote a note by hand, addressed to Lawrence. This note is not dated, but appears to be a follow-up to the Mabey memo.
"Dear Dan," she wrote. "I hear rumors that there are geologic problems" at Smith-Moorehouse and Quail Creek. "It's been a long time since we've given you some backup on geology. I hope you are well aware, we'd just love to be called in for advice should you want us to."
But Atwood said the survey never was called in for more advice on the Quail Creek site.
Even as the reservoir was filling, it leaked, requiring $1.5 million to repair the dam and dike - grouting, piping, reinforcing the earth-fill structures. It was dedicated in September 1985. Three years and three months later, the dike burst.
That the underground strata might cause seepage was recognized as early as 1978.
In that year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was looking for a place to build a reservoir to help purify the Virgin River by capturing turbid runoff from a tributary. It investigated several sites, including the area where the Quail Creek Reservoir was later built.
Ironically, the bureau report con-cludes, "This site is ideal for a concrete dam." The study was prepared in December 1978 by the agency's office in Boulder City, Nev. "Construction materials for an earth-fill dam would seem to be in ample supply in the reservoir area," it says.
This is confusing because the report supports creating the reservoir with a concrete dam, which might imply that the geology was not good for an earth-fill dam. But then it mentions the presence of material for an earth-fill dam. The project was eventually built with a huge earth-fill dike and an earth-fill dam.
Did Water Resources planners talk over the situation with Kaliser after his memos? "No, they did not," he said.> Why not? "I don't know . . . there must have been some reason."
Atwood told the Deseret News, "We actually did a joint field trip up to Smith-Moorehouse." But she agreed that the survey was not called in for further consultations about Quail Creek.
"On the Quail Creek one, they really felt they understood the problems. And we felt they understood the problems, too," Atwood said.
She said she sees the survey's mission as making sure the geological problems are understood. "On Quail Creek, I think it's ironic, because it was one where the problems were recognized," she said.
"I think they (other state experts) felt that they were doing something about them. You see, when it gets into engineering, it gets beyond our expertise."
She said experts in her office can tell if they're being ignored. In this case, other state experts "weren't ignoring us down in Quail Creek. The extent to which they were successfully coping is not something for which we would be a good judge."
Atwood said the survey offered its help. State planners responded that on Smith-Moorehouse, they were still trying to understand the situation.
"Whereas down at Quail Creek, it was, `Yeah, we understand we've got a problem,' and it shifted, in essence, from geology to engineering."
Lawrence, who retired in 1985, said, "There was what I thought fairly extensive dialogue between the two agencies . . . I thought we did a pretty good job. Over the years we kind of developed the art of communicating.