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3 Duchesne County reservoirs 'fill and spill' after record May rainfall

Water cascades over the spillway at Upper Stillwater Dam in Rock Creek Canyon, Duchesne County, on Friday, June, 19, 2015. Record-breaking precipitation levels in May helped fill the reservoir beyond its capacity, according to water managers.
Water cascades over the spillway at Upper Stillwater Dam in Rock Creek Canyon, Duchesne County, on Friday, June, 19, 2015. Record-breaking precipitation levels in May helped fill the reservoir beyond its capacity, according to water managers.
Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

ROCK CREEK CANYON, Duchesne County — With the spectacle on display here, you can't blame a kid for being a little confused.

"I thought it was just an ordinary waterfall, but then I saw it was a dam," said Tennis Paulson, his young voice raised a bit so he could be heard over the roar of the water cascading 200 feet to the canyon floor in front of him.

It's been four years since water last plunged over the spillway at Upper Stillwater Dam. Water managers didn't think this was the year for a repeat performance.

"Then Mother Nature, in football terms, stepped to the line and called an audible and did a reverse on us," said Tom Bruton, manager of operations and maintenance for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

That reverse came in the form of storms last month that shattered a 78-year-old record for precipitation in the city of Duchesne, according to the National Weather Service. Those storms also brought precipitation to the Duchesne River Drainage that was 200 percent above the amount normally received in May, "recharging" the snowpack in the mountains, Bruton said.

"It's just something we've never seen before," he said.

Upper Stillwater, which recorded 27 days of measurable precipitation in May, isn't the only reservoir in the area to "fill and spill" this year. Water has also gone over the spillways at Big Sandwash and Starvation reservoirs, Bruton said, noting that Starvation has actually "spilled" twice this year.

For Bruton, though, watching it happen at Upper Stillwater is a special treat.

"This spillway is two football fields wide — 600 feet — and a little over 200 feet tall, which is a little bit taller than Niagara Falls," he said. "If you look at it from that perspective, it's quite a grand sight."

Upper Stillwater, Big Sandwash, Starvation and Moon Lake are full for now, Bruton said. But with June's hot, dry weather so far, he said, it's important to remember Utah is a still considered a desert.

"Even though it's blooming like a rose, in those famous words, our efforts in the conservation arena need to continue," he said. "We need to keep in mind that Mother Nature may pull another reversal and throw us back into a dry season, and we need to be prepared for that."

Water is expected to continue traveling over the spillway at Upper Stillwater Dam for two or three days, Bruton said. The reservoir will remain closed to boaters for safety reasons until the water level drops at least 15 feet below the top of the dam.

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik