Officials ‘encouraged’ by efforts to reduce pressure on cracked Panguitch dam

On Tuesday, officials said there was potential for the dam to fail and that residents should prepare for possible evacuation.

(Utah Department of Public Safety) A crack in the Panguitch Lake Dam is shown on Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is making this public safety story available for free to all readers. You can donate to support our nonprofit newsroom here.

The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday announced that the Panguitch Lake Dam could fail, following the discovery of cracking on the upper portion of the dam on Monday.

Since then, dam safety experts at the Utah Division of Water Rights have been providing technical support to West Panguitch Irrigation Company, the company that owns Panguitch Lake Dam.

“I’m really encouraged by the efforts being accomplished at the dam,” Everett Taylor, an assistant state engineer for dam safety at DWR, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

DWR is focused on lowering Panguitch Lake’s water level, reducing pressure on the dam and adding structural supports.

There will be a community meeting on Wednesday night to inform residents of Panguitch and surrounding areas about the damage. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at Panguitch High School and virtually at this link.

[Read more: What we know about the Panguitch Lake Dam crack]

West Panguitch Irrigation Company discovered the cracks on Monday evening, according to Garfield County officials. A section of the dam started to tilt and crack, compromising the upper portion of the dam.

Officials reported on Wednesday afternoon that the main portion of the dam is intact and that they do not expect a complete dam breach.

“While there is no immediate threat to public safety, the situation could rapidly evolve,” read an emergency alert from the sheriff’s office on Tuesday. “We are closely monitoring the dam and are prepared to escalate our response if necessary.”

On Monday, the sheriff’s office announced that the dam “had sustained damage resulting in transverse cracking on the upper portion of the Dam.” Transverse cracks, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, extend perpendicular to the top of the dam and can lead to dam failure.

The sheriff’s office asked the nearly 2,000 people who live in Panguitch to prepare for potential evacuation. Emergency kits should contain water, food, medications, important documents and any other “essential items,” officials said. And should the dam fail, residents should move east toward Hatch as the primary evacuation route.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for low-lying areas along Panguitch Creek on Tuesday night.

“Stay informed, familiarize yourself with evacuation routes, and ensure your emergency kits are ready,” its announcement read.

What’s being done about the damage

Taylor, with DWR, explained that drawing Panguitch Lake’s water level down is their main focus.

“If we can get that accomplished, we can end the emergency,” he said.

West Panguitch Irrigation Company is releasing water through the low levels of the dam to reduce pressure on the dam.

Taylor estimates that it will take several days to get the reservoir level below the crack in the dam. He said that the water released from the dam is not creating any flooding downstream.

Panguitch Lake is currently covered with ice, which is pushing against the upper portion of the dam, where the crack is. As another mitigation measure, DWR is cutting that ice sheet to create gaps, which will allow the ice to relax off of the dam wall.

DWR is also placing additional supports on the downstream side of the dam to prevent it from tilting.

Hillary Koellner, state Department of Public Safety communications director, said emergency managers have not sought federal funds to help if the dam were to fail. For now, she said that’s premature because authorities have the situation “under control.”

”But obviously, it’s a developing situation,” Koellner said, “so as things change we’ll be providing updates.”

On Wednesday, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources issued an emergency closure of fishing at Panguitch Lake until further notice.

Originally a natural body of water covering almost 800 acres, Panguitch Lake became a reservoir when the 28-foot-high dam was completed in 1872, expanding to more than 1,200 acres. According to the Utah Division of Water Resources, Panguitch Lake is 87% full and holds about 19,500 acre-feet of water. Officials are releasing water from the reservoir to lower the lake level.

State Route 143, which connects Panguitch and Parowan, remains closed below the dam as a precaution. The highway remains open above Panguitch Lake, which is about 260 miles south of Salt Lake City and about 18 miles southwest of the city of Panguitch.

— Tribune reporters Paighten Harkins and Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.