The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began safety upgrades on Western dams without first figuring out which dam failures would threaten the greatest loss of life and property.
So it spent huge amounts on dams it later discovered would hurt few or no people if they broke. And it has relatively little money remaining to fix dams posing much larger threats.That's according to a new report by the Interior Department inspector general's office, which notes the bureau spent three-fifths of its authorized amounts for safety repairs on just 31 of its 256 dams identified as possibly needing upgrades.
The bureau's system also resulted in relatively low priority for safety projects on most bureau dams in Utah, accordingto rankings released at the request of the Deseret News.
The new study said legislation creating the repair program required that highest priority be given to dams whose failure would threaten the most people. But priorities were often based instead mostly on dams' physical condition.
"Those dams in the worst physical condition have received the highest priority rating, even though such dams may pose no threat to life in the event of a dam's failure," it said.
For example, the report said, "The Box Butte Dam in Nebraska ranks 14th among bureau dams according to the (priority) rating, even though it poses no potential loss of life upon dam failure."
Another problem came when the bureau in 1989 funded $115 million to improve the six Verde River Dams in Arizona. If those dams failed, studies predicted 16 people likely could have been killed.
Meanwhile, studies later completed on the Coolidge Dam in Arizona and the Cold Springs and Ochoco dams in Oregon showed their failures could cause a total loss of 673 lives - and they could all have been modified for $83 million (or 72 percent of the money spent on Verde River).
The new report said the Bureau of Reclamation has only completed 46 threat-to-life studies for the 256 dams it figures need repairs and upgrades - and began such studies in 1986, eight years after the upgrade program was authorized.
The bureau said it is now putting a high priority on completing such threat-to-life studies to ensure future funds are spent more wisely.
And contrary to the new report, the bureau's public affairs office said the agency has always used potential loss of life or property as a key criterion in determining which dams should be upgraded.
Bureau lists show that most proposed safety projects on Utah dams rank relatively low nationally, even though they were given high priority by the bureau's Upper Colorado Region.
For example, some of the 10 most important bureau dam safety projects in Utah rank as low as 250th nationally.
Upgrading Pineview Dam ranked as the No. 5 priority in the region and a mere 140th on the Interior Department's national list - even though it is above heavily populated Ogden.
But some unusual circumstances led it to become the bureau's first dam safety project in Utah anyway, and it is expected to be completed next month.
Wirth said its construction was moved ahead of higher-ranked projects because water-level restrictions had been placed on it because of safety concerns, and all studies necessary for construction had been completed while studies had not.
The contract for the second dam safety project in Utah is expected later this year for Steinaker Dam above Vernal. It was ranked as the second most important proj-ect in the region, but only 141st nationally.
About those two dams, Wirth said, "They clearly would threaten a lot of people if they failed." Both dams were considered to have a high risk of "liquefying" during an earthquake, so they are being reinforced.
"A lot of these dams were built years ago when the level of knowledge about dams wasn't what it is today."
Causey Dam is ranked No. 6 by the region and No. 19 nationally. However, Wirth said recent studies indicate no work may be needed there. Water that officials worried was from dam seepage apparently was from other sources that do not endanger the dam.
Deer Creek, above Provo, is ranked 14th regionally and 187th nationally. Wirth said field work scheduled on it this summer could move the dam up on the priority list.
The Deseret News in 1988 reviewed bureau safety studies that were then completed for 15 bureau dams in Utah - all of which were given mediocre or poor technical ratings.
Five Utah bureau dams were rated "fair," one was "fair to poor," eight were "conditionally poor" (meaning more study was needed to determine how safe they were) and one was "poor."
Meek's Cabin 1 41
Steinaker 2 141
Joe's Valley 3 68
Lost Creek 4 37
Pineview 5 140
Causey 6 19
Scofield 8 250
Red Fleet 9 101
Hyrum 10 99
Paonia 13 124
Deer Creek 14 187
Echo 15 114
Starvation 17 215
Wanship 19 207