Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert has saddled the state's Executive Water Task Force with the burden of identifying who is responsible for adapting Utah's antiquated canal systems to the 21st century.
Herbert acknowledged that it will be a complicated issue, but he stressed the importance of urgency above all else.
"Water really is the lifeblood of Utah," he said, "and water really is something that can impact and limit the growth of this state. I'm here today to address a set of circumstances that cause us all a bit of concern. I had the opportunity to observe the canal and mudslide that occurred (July 11) in Logan, and it caused me to have concern when it comes to oversight and the care and maintenance of our waterways."
Herbert described the landslide that killed Jacqueline Leavey, her 12-year-old daughter, Abbey Alanis, and 14-year-old son, Victor Alanis, as "a wake up call." He has asked the task force to identify what the state's role should be in regard to operation and oversight of the canal systems.
The majority of canals are operated by individual owners. But with an increasing dependence on the systems by communities and their expectations of safety, Herbert said questions of accountability need to be addressed.
The task force is composed of engineers, legal experts, state lawmakers, canal owners and representatives from the Utah Farm Bureau and various water-conservancy districts.
Herbert charged the task force with defining and locating high-hazard canals among the 6,600 miles of waterways that crisscross the state, as well as determining what state or local governments' stake should be in addressing weaknesses in the system.
Warren Peterson, vice president of Farmland Reserve Inc., noted historic developments with Utah's waterways. When communities were settled across the state, the first order of business was to establish a main road. Then settlers set out to construct canals and waterways so they could develop agriculture and ranching, allowing the state to blossom, Peterson said.
As the population of the Beehive State boomed, urban sprawl and development grew across cities, and planners paid little attention to historic waterways that serve every community and the risks they posed, he said. As a result, some homes rest as close as 10 feet from canals.
Rick Allis, director of the Utah Geological Survey, said urban development is at the heart of the problem.
"It's important to realize that urban growth has increased the hazards," Allis said. "Some of the canals are 100 years old, and towns and cities have grown along them, above them and below them."
However, canals are only one of many possible contributors to disasters such as the landslide in Logan. A recent study by the Utah Geological Survey shows that changes to the water table are a direct result of urban growth.
In areas of high development, where landslides are more prevalent, there are two peaks in the yearly water level — spring and summer. In rural, arid areas that are akin to Utah's natural systems, the water level only peaks in the spring. Alias said the second peak is occurring because people tend to overwater with sprinkling systems and are potentially saturating the land to unsafe levels in some areas.
The need for Utah's canals is difficult to deny, said Peterson, who estimates that about 80 percent of water distributed throughout Utah is managed via canals.
A subcommittee was appointed to address Herbert's concerns, but they have met only once and weren't able provide new directions for management at Tuesday's meeting.
Sterling Brown with the Utah Farm Bureau said a routine setback to any solutions the subcommittee identifies lie in how to help finance canal improvements.
Herbert acknowledged that solutions will be difficult to come by, but he stressed the urgency of locating them if development in Utah is to continue. Encouraging the task force to be broad with its approaches, he suggested that it consider the role of government at city, county and state levels to find appropriate solutions.
Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corinne, said he and many stakeholders are receptive to a bottom-up solution in creating safer waterways, instead of a state decree over the management of water.
The task force is set to meet again at 1 p.m. Aug. 25 in Room 2000 of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, 1594 W. North Temple.