60-foot crack discovered in rural Utah dam puts nearby town at risk

Photograph shows the crack at the upper section of the Panguitch Lake Dam. (Utah Department of Natural Resources)

Garfield County residents, located approximately 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, are on high alert as a Level 2 Emergency Situation unfolds, with urgent efforts underway to reinforce a rural dam after the discovery of a 60-foot crack, aiming to avert danger for 1,700 downstream residents.

State and local officials reassure residents that the Panguitch Lake Dam isn't immediately at risk of rupture, but residents are advised to stay prepared for potential evacuation if conditions deteriorate. Everett Taylor, an assistant state engineer for dam safety at the Utah Division of Water Rights, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that lowering the reservoir below the affected area will require several days. 

Currently, approximately 2 feet (61 centimeters) of water remains above the crack, with nearly 45 feet (almost 14 meters) of it covered with boulders as of Wednesday evening. Taylor highlighted that an ice sheet pressing against the dam had caused it to crack and tilt downstream, leading to water surging through the gap. However, the ice sheet has since receded, allowing the top of the dam to return to its original position.

"We are currently coordinating with emergency management personnel and local authorities to prepare for any potential outcomes," warned the Garfield County Sheriff's Office in the alert to their community. "It is crucial that residents of Panguitch and surrounding areas be prepared for possible evacuation should we reach a level 3 situation, which would indicate imminent dam failure."

FOX 13 Salt Lake City reports that the Red Cross is on standby.

During a Monday night inspection, local officials discovered a crack in the upper section of the dam, with Utah state authorities subsequently informing the public on Tuesday.

To mitigate the risk, water is being discharged at a rate of nearly 260 cubic feet (6.5 cubic meters) per second to lower the reservoir below the crack. Additionally, large rocks are being transported and positioned downstream of the dam to reinforce the structure. Fortunately, no rainfall is expected until Saturday.

Constructed in the late 1800s, the dam underwent modifications in the 1930s and 1940s, with the top portion that cracked being added during this period. Everett Taylor stated that there were no prior concerns about the dam's structural stability.

"No one anticipated this," he said, adding he is encouraged by the progress being made.

The Associated Press and FOX Weather contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.