PLEASANT GROVE — David Marble, assistant state engineer of dam safety at the Utah Division of Water Rights, remembers the 1989 New Year's flood that caused $12 million in damage in Washington County.
He called the Quail Creek dam catastrophe a "black cloud of a disaster," with a silver lining that resulted in reform.
Thirty years after the event, rehabilitation is finished for two Utah County watersheds — the dams at the Grove Creek Debris Basin and Battle Creek Debris Basin — protecting a population of nearly 20,000 people from floods.
Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Small Watershed Rehabilitation Program, the $4.5 million project, in collaboration with the North Utah County Water Conservancy District, took four years of planning and a year of construction work.
To celebrate the project's completion, representatives from the organizations held a ribbon cutting at the newly rehabilitated Battle Creek dam in Pleasant Grove on Monday.
"The program that we're doing is a direct result of experiences that were not so good and some foresight by state leaders and legislators, who realized we should get ahead of these problems and get them taken care of before they become a problem," Marble said.
The project allowed for the replacement of auxiliary spillways and upgraded other features of the dams, as well as improving the ease of operation and its long-term safety.
Combined, the dams are expected to provide flood protection to nearly 5,330 homes, three schools and 910 businesses in Highland, Cedar Hills, American Fork and Pleasant Grove.
Under the USDA Watershed and Flood Prevention Program, the Battle Creek dam was built in 1961, and the Grove Creek dam was completed in 1963.
“Through the help of the program and water district and that state legislators, were able to rehabilitate for another 100 years, and increase the size of the dam,” said Becky Ross, state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Funding for the dams came from the North Utah County Water Conservancy District and grant money the group obtained, while the majority came from the USDA.
The dams, located a mile apart, are classified as "high-hazard dams," meaning that if they fail it could result in a loss of life. In Utah, over 200 dams are classified as high-hazard dams.
In 2015, the American Society of Civil Engineers released a report card for Utah’s infrastructure and gave Utah's dams a B- grade.
"The dam is designed to protect all of the land owners downstream from flood waters that come up from this valley towards Mt. Timpanongos … especially in a high snow melt or in an intense rain flow,” Ross said. "The intent of this dam is to store all of that water and allow it to either release out through some emergency spillway structures or through some pipes that are inserted through the dam."
Ross hopes residents never have to learn the functions of the dams through an emergency situation.
"I'm hopeful that those persons living downstream will never have to understand the function of it," she said. "We can provide the safety measure there that they don't even have to think about at night when they go to sleep."
In the 1960s, the dams were only designed to hold the sediments that came down from the watershed, she said.
Ross said the organizations involved with the rehabilitation project knew "something had to be done" to ensure that they could continue to function.
"We're seeing more of these dams reach their life expectancy," she said. "What happens is that they fill with sediments from up above, and they don't have the capacity to hold as much flood water,” she said.
Ross said the partnership and amount of collaboration, as well as the finding of funds, makes Utah "a model for other states to follow."
Ross added that the Battle Creek dam could also be used for recreational purposes like Tibble Fork Resorvoir.
In less than five years, Utah has rehabilitated 10 watershed structures, according to USDA watershed program branch chief Kevin Farmer. He calls it “phenomenal” for a state to achieve, adding that a total of 134 structures in the U.S. that have been rehabilitated since the program’s launch in 2001.
“One of the things that’s unique for Utah is that we’ve had the ability with the local partnership to have folks who are poised and ready,” Farmer said. “Just here in Pleasant Grove and Utah County, they’ve spent more than 40 years trying to get their resources together to be able to do this work."
Aside from flood protection, he said, additional benefits of watershed structures include water management, groundwater recharge, recreation benefits, watershed protection and sediment retention.
Brigham Young University Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences professor Ben Abbott said the dams could have an ecological impact on stream habitat and can "cause issues as well as solve them."
"Dams are really important to lots of communities that need that water spread out over more of the year," he said. "It's always a trade off between what is the potential benefit of the dam and what is the potential damage caused by the dam."
Before investing federal dollars into watershed projects, the NRCS evaluates the environmental impacts that could occur and works with the local community to ensure they’ve been addressed sufficiently and adequately, according to Farmer.
"We work with all those agencies and organization to make sure we're protecting the interests of the environment,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version identified David Marble as the assistant city engineer of dam safety at the Utah Division of Water Rights. His title is assistant state engineer of dam safety.