Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Jordan River canal winds through in Salt Lake County Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. A committee of lawmakers declined to act on a canal safety measure Tuesday. While lawmakers admit something needs to be done, the difficulty has been finding an approach that spreads responsibility among those involved.
The problem is how we can address the issue of canal safety, especially with the urban growth that we are experiencing —Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — While lawmakers agree assuring canal safety is a critical issue for Utah, no one can agree on how that task should be accomplished and who should bear responsibility.

The conundrum associated with canal safety is about spreading accountability among the affected players — the canal operators, cities that allow encroaching development, and developers who insist on building despite the risks.

"The problem is how we can address the issue of canal safety, especially with the urban growth that we are experiencing," said Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, the sponsor of SB114.

"This bill addresses that by having canal companies address their risk," he said.

Davis' measure calls for canal operators to perform an assessment of each canal they owned by Jan. 1, 2015, and perform an inspection every five years.

Any segment of the canal system designated as "high-risk" would be documented with the state Division of Water Resources on a canal action list, necessitating a remediation plan to address the problem. Under the provisions in the bill, any canal company that lacked an approved remediation plan would be ineligible for loans from the state.

The issue of canal safety has repeatedly dogged the Legislature since a catastrophic failure in Cache County swamped a neighborhood in 2009 and killed a mother and her two children. More recently, a canal failure in Murray caused millions of dollars in damage to a subdivision and led for calls for a more stringent canal inspection program.

Canal operators, however, said the measure puts too much responsibility on them because they can do little, if anything, to prevent unsafe situations that come from encroaching development posed by cities, builders and homeowners themselves.

Carly Burton, head of the Utah Water Users Association, said the hundreds of canal companies operating in the state have a litany of horror stories when it comes to builders and homeowners who bore into canal embankments with disregard for the impacts.

"It is a sticky issue. It is an ongoing issue," Burton said. "Our association has concerns about this bill. The liability is totally on the canal company. That seems a little unfair when the actual problem results from builders and municipalities building and encroaching into canal system."

David Marble, who oversees dam safety for the state, said any attempt to address canal safety should first come with a database that does an inventory of the system.

"We really don't have a good handle on the extent of the problem," Marble said. "We know we have thousands of miles of canals, but we don't know how many of those represent a risk."

Ultimately, lawmakers deferred action on the bill, instead sending it to interim for further study.

"I think we need far more, far more clarity on this issue," said Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork.


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