Castle Valley Comments
May 17, 2018

It seems like most of the state has received a lot of rain this week. My part-time Castle Valley neighbor, Ric Fornelius who lives in Cottonwood Heights in the Salt Lake Valley, reported the results at his permanent home. “We have had two great storms in the last week,” he said. “I would say that the one yesterday gave my place at least a half inch with lots of thunder and lightning. The one last Friday and Saturday was a much wetter storm. The foothills and mountains are very green, meaning lots of growth for summer fire season.”

But for us down here in the southeastern part of the state, we’ve remained high and dry. We can’t seem to buy a storm. But it wasn’t that way 35 years ago. It was a heavy snow year that winter and a wet spring all over the state, which later caused damage to roads and highways because of the heavy runoff and other issues.

The first issue to cause problems that spring was in April when a wet and saturated mountain in the Spanish Fork Canyon began to slip and soon caused a massive landslide into the canyon, which blocked the Spanish Fork River and eventually flooded the little town of Thistle. The residents of Thistle, which is about 65 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, were evacuated as nearly 65,000 acre feet of water backed up, which flooded the town.

The flood eventually destroyed most of the structures in the canyon and closed U.S. Route 6 and U.S. Route 89 for months until the routes could be realigned to higher elevations. I remember state and federal agencies at the time say that the landslide was the most costly landslide in U.S. history. The economic consequences affected the whole region and resulted in the first presidentially declared disaster area in Utah. The decision of the state engineers was to compact the dam that was caused by the landslide and try to stabilize it so it wouldn’t break loose later and cause further damage down stream.

The consequence of the landslide that occurred around 150 miles northwest of us in Castle Valley was minimal unless you had to travel to the Wasatch Front very often then you had to find a route around the slide area and add an hour or two to the journey.

But for Merrill Brady of Castle Valley, it was a major part of his life. Thirty-five years ago this week, this column reported that Brady had just returned home after working a month on the dam as a heavy equipment operator for one of the contractors hired to stabilize the dam. He estimated at the time that 50 pieces of large equipment from multiple contractors were being used on the dam. The dam was still unstable a month after the first occurrence as large cracks would frequently appear in the dam. Brady and the other operators had been working on the dam 12 hours a day, seven days a week for a month or more.

A little later in the month the Colorado River swelled to unprecedented heights and ran over the banks onto State Route 128 in several places. The Utah Department of Transportation closed the river road to all but local residents with high profile vehicles. That lasted for several days until the level of the river dropped considerably. Then by the end of June another situation developed to hamper travel along the river. I wrote in Castle Valley Comments the following: Lloyd McKinney, foreman of the Moab shed of the Utah Department of Transportation stated this week that the outside edge of the river road (State Route 128) is continuing to slough off especially east of the Castle Valley turn-off near Dewey due to high water in the Colorado River. State crews are rebuilding the worst area about three miles west of Dewey.

Because of the construction work and hazardous driving conditions, that portion of the road has been closed except to local traffic. The road west of the Castle Valley turn-off is not as bad, but problems do exist around the eight-mile marker and near the White Ranch where cracking of the pavement is evident and portions of the blacktop have sloughed off into the river.

McKinney explained that he planned to build the outside edge of those areas up with rill as soon as the river goes down and stabilizes. In the meantime he closed it to all but local traffic in an effort to minimize damage to the road and avoid a serious accident.

We’ve had other wet years since then but the winter and spring of 1983 were particularly memorable because of all that happened because of the wet year. Then the mud that followed the wet winter was also memorable but that is a different story. This year we have a different problem because of the lack of winter moisture and the upcoming dry fire season but we probably won’t have to worry about landslides this year.

ByBy Ron Drake