PROVO — An open Utah County canal that has concerned people in Utah Valley for years will finally be enclosed, thanks to federal legislation headed to President Bush's desk this week.
The legislation, introduced by U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, allows for the title transfer of the Provo Reservoir Canal, commonly known as the Murdock Canal, from federal hands to the Provo River Water Users Association.
The title transfer is needed to enable the association to apply for low-cost, non-federal loans to enclose the canal.
"Enclosure of the Murdock Canal is essential for public safety and will also provide for improved management of our scarce water supplies," Cannon said. "There have already been too many tragic accidents in this canal. With the increasing development of homes around the canal, these safety concerns will only increase."
Since 1998, four people have drowned in the 23-mile Murdock Canal, and possibly as many as 14 people have died there in the last 20 years, according to estimates by officials. The most recent drowning involved two scuba divers who died in an enclosed siphon portion of the canal last October.
The Provo River Water Users Association, which oversees maintenance and use of the canal, has wanted to enclose the canal for years but couldn't find a way to fund the project. The main funding roadblock was the fact that the canal is federally owned and therefore ineligible for some types of funding.
If the legislation is signed, a joint public agency made up of public water districts and cities that have capacity rights in the canal will be created to hold the canal title. The association estimates it will take a year or two to complete that process and another year to secure funding before the enclosure project is started. The public agency will own the canal, but the association will continue to operate it.
Keith Denos, Provo River Water Users Association general manager, said although the canal association had the authority to enclose the canal earlier, the project's cost will now likely be about $25 million less.
"That's the main reason we're creating this entity: It will enable us to access the tax-exempt bond market that we can't otherwise access to pay for this project," Denos said. "It can make a difference of maybe as much as $800,000 to $900,000 a year, which is about $25 million over the life of the project."
The current cost estimate for the project is $115 million, and it could be finished as soon as 2010, Denos said.
"We'll still have to deliver water as we normally do during the irrigation season, so we'll have to construct in the non-irrigation season, between October and April, so that's why it will take several years," Denos said.
Enclosing the canal will not only improve safety but also reduce significant loss of water through evaporation and seepage. The Central Utah Water Conservancy District has agreed to help fund half of the project in exchange for the use of some of that additional water, partly to preserve the June sucker, an endangered fish. native to Utah Lake.
Enclosure will also decrease exposure to contaminants, which has been a concern for the association, as less of the canal water is used for irrigation and more for drinking.
"More and more of the water in the future will be treated at water-treatment plants in Salt Lake County and used for drinking water purposes," Denos said. "So that will help us keep the water more pristine by keeping it covered."
A large portion — some 85 percent — of the water from the canal will be used in Salt Lake County as many Utah County shareholders who formerly used the canal for irrigation have sold their interests.
Enclosing the canal would also allow for the local development of recreational trails, and cities surrounding the canal are working with the association to merge construction as much as possible.
"We'll certainly be involved in discussion (with the cities) and design and development as we go along," Denos said. "In fact, as we actually construct the enclosure project, where we can combine the two and save money, we'll certainly try to do that."
Contributing: Jerry D. Spangler