Deadly mudslide: Logan failed to act on canal warnings

The city was repeatedly told that waterway posed a threat to residents.
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Logan City received repeated warnings that a privately owned canal that runs along the base of a steep bluff posed a danger to those living below, but the city failed to act on that safety issue, or even to warn residents who might be affected, records and interviews with researchers and a former water official show.

Although city officials contributed money and staff to canal upkeep -- and knew of cracks in the walls of the structure -- they left decisions about how to improve the canal's safety to about 800 private water shareholders who own and operate the Logan and Northern Irrigation Company.

They permitted the company to inspect its own property despite the fact the canal had been blamed for numerous landslides in the past. And Logan public works director Mark Nielsen conceded Monday "there really aren't any" standards for the company to maintain.

Nielsen and other officials said the death of a mother and her two children buried in a Saturday landslide will prompt the city to review what can be done in the future to prevent such tragedies.

But many in Logan wonder why no one acted on the earlier warnings.

'Something seriously needs to be done' » City leaders have described the canal that snakes along the bluff just south of Utah State University as "a gift from our ancestors." But it also has been implicated in dozens of landslides over the past 100 years.

Originally intended to carry irrigation water to a few farmers, the canal increasingly has been used as a storm sewer as houses and businesses have been added and vegetation has been lost. It begins at the Logan River and flows northward through Logan, Hyde Park and Smithfield before ending, 11 miles from its start, in North Smithfield.

While more recent decades have brought an increase in property damage from slides, Saturday's disaster that killed 43-year-old Jacqueline Leavey, 13-year-old Victor Alanis and 12-year-old Abbey Alanis appears to be the first in which lives have been lost.

Nonetheless, during his time on the company's board, and later as president, Jess Harris was so worried about landslides and flooding that he explored laying a wide steel pipe in the canal's bed. The pipe would have run about 1/2 mile through the most troublesome stretch of the canal, including the site of Saturday's landslide. Containing water in a pipe would eliminate walls of water like that which contributed to the destruction of Leavey's home.

On the opposite side of Cache Valley, the Providence-Logan Irrigation Company borrowed about $250,000 from the state to run about 1,000 feet of pipe along one particularly troublesome stretch of its canal. Riverdale did the same after a 1999 canal burst that damaged about 60 homes.

But Logan and Northern decided against the pipe, which Harris said would have cost about $300,000 in 1998. He said the company had tried to maintain the canal by patching, replacing or bracing the century-old concrete that still lines much of the canal.

He believes the company should take another look at piping the problem areas of the canal. "Something seriously needs to be done, not just a patch-up job."

Cracks in the wall » Shareholders who get water from the Logan Northern Canal trace their rights to an 1860 legal document that gives the canal's owners a right to 23 percent of the available flow from the Logan River, according to USU records. Because it has long been a private operation, communities refused to help maintain the canal until the 1990s, when Harris and other company officials persuaded government leaders city storm runoff was affecting the canal.

But Logan Mayor Randy Watts said that while the city has offered some help with maintenance "to show that we recognize their concerns and want to help them out with it" the company remained responsible for ensuring the structure's security.

That doesn't mean the city hasn't been aware of problems. In 1996, water was diverted down city streets when the canal failed above Crockett Avenue. A 2003 assessment sponsored by Cache County concluded the canal was "deficient" in several locations. And Francis Ashland of the state geological hazards program said a study initiated by USU after a 2005 slide near the current disaster site showed more slides were probable. That study was presented to Logan City, he said.

In a discussion about a canal "above Canyon Road" at a city council meeting in May, Watts noted that "water is leaking from the canals due to the cracks in the walls," according to meeting minutes.

Watts said Monday he couldn't remember making those comments, but noted that "when you start talking about cracks, we've got concrete everywhere and there are always cracks in sidewalks and foundation walls."

As a professional contractor, Watts said he wasn't overly concerned by the mere presence of cracks in concrete.

"Nobody is going to tell you for a second there aren't cracks in that concrete," he said. There isn't a canal in the world without some cracks -- "and that's going to cause some drips."

But that may have been what led to the canal's collapse.

Possible explanation » City officials initially said natural springs likely caused the disaster by saturating the ground below the canal, initiating a slide that took out a 100-foot section of the concrete structure. On Monday, however, they said that while the ground under the canal was indeed overly saturated, it was too early to be certain why.

A 2008 study by USU graduate student Katerine Napán Molina offers a possible explanation. It showed that while the Logan Northern Canal did not appear to leak any worse than several other irrigation channels in the area, it was unique in that the worst seepage occurred in the steepest areas, including the area where Saturday's deadly slide began.

Engineering professor Gary Merkley, who advised Molina's research, said Monday that seepage isn't unusual in canals, especially in ones as old as the Logan Northern.

And in some cases, Merkley said, seepage is even desired by communities that want the extra water in the ground.

"But usually, canals are not on slopes like that. They're cut into the valley floor where it's flatter, where you don't have problems like this," he said.

Merkley said that no one should desire extra water on a steep hillside with homes below.

Ashland, the state geologist, buttressed that point.

"Anytime you introduce water to a slope you increase the landslide hazard," he said.

A closer look » USU educators have talked about setting up a certification program for water masters -- canal officials who walk the channels looking for problems and take citizen calls.

But for the moment, Merkley said, there is no training program for those individuals.

He said the job has a high turnover rate because it doesn't pay well. There are basically no qualifications for the job, he added.

Nonetheless, Logan officials say anyone with concerns about the canals should contact the appropriate company's water master.

Although some are untrained, they don't believe that the water masters are unconcerned with the state of the canals -- or the safety of those who live below.

Indeed, one former water master for the Logan Northern Canal wrote in a thesis for Utah State that he wanted the company to submit to a "complete walk-through survey."

"The physical condition of the canal has been degrading for many years and needs to be rehabilitated," Anthony Steinfeldt wrote in2003. "There are several sections of the canal that need to be rebuilt where the banks have receded ... on several sections the banks have collapsed."

And, he added, "along the Island, there are several sections that need to be looked at closely."

It's unclear if the company took any action on Steinfeldt's recommendations. Officials did not return repeated calls.

But Noble Erickson, who spent about 30 years on Logan and Northern's board of directors, defended the company.

"There's been thousands and even millions of dollars spent," he said. "About every year we have to re-cement part of it."

He said the canal should be patched to allow water to flow to farmers and gardeners again, but then there needs to be a comprehensive review to prevent another slide.

"There are a lot of different places along that hillside that this could have happened," Erickson said.

What happens to the farmers?

Farmers downstream of the canal are contemplating what to do without their primary water supply.

Clark Israelsen, the Utah State University agricultural extension agent for Cache County, said holders in the irrigation company may pump ground water into the canal, but that still won't produce the normal flow.

The big concern is for corn grown for silage, Israelsen said. Corn is water intensive and it will not grow well with limited irrigation.

"We've pretty well resigned ourselves to the fact that for the rest of this growing season we will have very little irrigation water," Israelsen said.