Even as Quail Creek Reservoir was being built in 1985, both the dike and dam began leaking.
About $1.5 million was spent for grouting and a berm designed to hold back the water. So much grouting was pumped in, in fact, that at one point the dike's top cracked parallel to the crest.Because of the danger that new leakage could occur, regular inspections were scheduled after the reservoir filled. The last of these occurred on Dec. 30, 1988, and nothing frightening was noticed.
But the next day, Ronald H. Thompson paid an unscheduled visit to the reservoir. Thompson is manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the project's owner, and he and Wayne Wilson, district board chairman, happened to drive out there to talk over issues.
When they arrived at 10 a.m. on Dec. 31, 1988, Thompson was startled to see dark brown water at the toe of the dike. It was colored because it was moving swiftly through the structure, ripping out earth fill as it went.
Thompson alerted emergency crews, and downstream areas were evacuated. Heavy equipment operators worked through the last day of 1988 trying to shore up the dike, but it was hopeless.
Shortly after midnight on New Year's Day, the dike burst.
"It was like the water was running through a pipe," Thompson said. "Then all of a sudden you had about half the dike collapsed on it.
"It was just like a big tunnel caving in with water running through it, pushing its way on out, with lots of pressure."
It was dark, and the water roared horribly. A photographer was on the dike, trying to take pictures, when a ledge collapsed under him. He barely managed to scramble to safety.
Lights had been set up on the dike with a generator, so the workmen could see. Then they collapsed too, dashed down the new river.
"It was just pitch black," Thompson said. "You could just hear the water as it roared down the canyon."
The dike burst caused an estimated $12 million in damage. Homes had warped walls, deep mud, sodden furniture, destroyed belongings.
Fields were covered with silt. Bridges were washed out, roads ripped up, the earth itself gouged down to bedrock, a natural gas pipeline yanked from the ground.
On March 7, a team of outside experts appointed by Gov. Norm Bangerter reported that the primary cause of the failure was that materials in the embankment were not protected from seepage beneath the dike.