Many people don't even know about the small dam and reservoir up Red Butte Canyon, but people living along Red Butte Creek may find out about it in a hurry and unpleasantly if some bureaucratic squabbles aren't resolved soon.
The dam has been unmaintained for a week now, and government agencies are engaging in a staring contest over responsibility for the dam, seeing who blinks first.Meanwhile, should a storm combine with heavy runoff, downstream residents could see some serious flooding problems.
"I guess it's essentially a crisis," said Pam Gardiner, deputy U.S. Forest Service supervisor with the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
The Army built the dam in 1930 to provide water to Fort Douglas, and, until recently, has maintained it. But with the decommissioning of Fort Douglas the dam has become a white elephant, costing the Army thousands per year to maintain for no benefit to itself. According to Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Jim Taylor, Congress has not authorized any more money for dam maintenance.
After months of threatening, on March 14 the Army finally let its maintenance contract expire, saying it had no choice but adding that the dam is fine left untended.
That's a definite point of contention with other agencies. The Forest Service is arguing with the Army about it, and Salt Lake County is thinking about filing suit.
The contractor had been visiting the dam every couple of days, tinkering with the outflow to make sure the water level remained stable. Now that that's no longer happening, water levels are likely to rise, possibly to the point where water goes over the spillway and serious flooding problems occur.
"The amount and duration of these discharges is difficult to predict," said Bill Self, a dams and geotechnical engineer with the Forest Service, in a report. "However, allowing the limited, downstream receiving-channel capacity, damage to private and public resources would occur. (Other drainage could overload Red Butte Creek), thereby aggravating the situation and increasing damages and potentials for loss of human life."
Salt Lake County is generally in charge of local flood control, but it wants nothing to do with the dam, even though the Forest Service has gone to it, hat in hand, to plead for help.
In addition to the maintenance cost, the dam needs a $2 million spillway upgrade, something not likely to encourage government agencies to take it over.
The dam's original purpose was to provide a water supply, but over the years, as people have built close to Red Butte Creek, it has turned into a flood-control device because those residences would be flooded if the creek were allowed to flow naturally.
Army representatives say it's not their fault the city and county let people build so close. Naturally, local government officials don't agree. The dam was there, and people planned accordingly.
"(The Army) created the dam. They ought to mitigate it," said Salt Lake County Commission chairman Brent Overson.
Complicating the issue is the presence of an endangered fish in the reservoir, the June sucker. That has gotten the federal Bureau of Reclamation involved in the issue - the bureau may take over short-term maintenance while everything gets worked out.
The Army may pull out its trump card and simply remove the dam, which would create an ironic result: Given the flood control needs for developments along the creek, local governments would be forced to go right back and build another one.
Taylor said the Army is doing its best to keep the dam operating and keep flood control going.
Calling all lawyers: Given the situation right now, the dispute will likely wind up in court.