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Heavy Metals Taint Spill Area, But The Water Is Safe For Drinking, Irrigation

Scott Daly
Utah Department of Environmental Quality
Faster-than-expected water cut through the silt that covered the bottom of the Tibble Fork Reservoir when a dam improvement project went awry last weekend.

The worst of a silt spill at the Tibble Fork Dam has passed. Now health and environment officials are assessing the extent of the damage and risks ahead.

“We’re in response mode right now to be able to alert the public if there are concerns,” Walt Baker is director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. “That will all be spelled out in our release of the data.”

State wildlife officers said Friday morning they could find no living fish in the two miles below the dam. They found some alive and some dead in the next mile downstream, and many live fish in the last four-and-a-half miles. By evening, anglers were being urged as a precaution to release any fish they catch because of heavy metals found in the silt.

Credit Scott Daly / Utah Department of Environmental Quality
Utah Department of Environmental Quality
A fish lies dead in the silt that spilled into American Fork Canyon Creek after fast-flowing water clouded the water with sediment and choked some of the fish.

 Agencies monitoring the spill also said they’d be posting “caution” signs along the river because of the tainted sediment. But they said the water itself is safe enough for irrigation and the spill hasn’t affected drinking water.

The North Utah County Water Conservancy Districtplanned the $7.3 million project to store more water for downstream irrigators. It also was expected to improve recreation and conditions for trout – that is, until fast water picked up sediment from behind the dam Sunday night and turned the creek into slurry and muck.

“This is a pretty visceral impact on the river,” says Paul Burnett of the conservation group, Trout Unlimited. “This is like a punch in the gut just from the fine sediment alone. It’s a huge impact.”

The sediment release could trigger state fines even though it was accidental. Any affects on irrigators or damage to the environment will be taken into account.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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