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  • SOUTHERN UTAH MEMORIES: New Year’s Day Tragedy
    by Loren Webb
    Published - 01/24/14 - 09:15 AM | 0 0 comments | 284 284 recommendations | email to a friend | print
    1989 Quail Creek, Utah. Photo courtesy Association of State Dam Safety Officials
    1989 Quail Creek, Utah. Photo courtesy Association of State Dam Safety Officials
    slideshow
    (WASHINGTON COUNTY, Utah) - On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 1988, private contractor Omar Mathews, among others, was called by Washington County Water Conservancy District officials to go over and repair a leak that had been developing in the Quail Creek Dike.

    Mathews took over equipment between 3 and 6 p.m., his wife, Kay Jean Mathews remembers, and he worked on the leak for quite a few hours.

    At about 9 or 10 p.m., Omar called Kay Jean to bring some food over for him. When Kay Jean arrived at the dike, Omar told her the dam was going to collapse. She said engineers with the Conservancy District were also on-site. Omar told her he was pulling out the equipment and that took place about 10:30 or 11 p.m.

    Then between that time and midnight, Omar, along with his brother Ramone Mathews, and other district officials, watched the dam collapse.

    When Kay Jean went back to pick up Omar, it was after midnight and she said, “You could hear the water roaring as it went down (toward the Virgin River).” She added that the lights that had been placed at the top of the dam had disappeared as the dam collapsed.

    By early morning on Jan. 1, 1989, when the Quail Creek dike broke, it released over 25,000 acre feet of water “into the normally placid Virgin. At its peak, 60,000 cubic feet per second came roaring down the channel,” according to a Conservancy District slide presentation given to the public on Aug. 7, 1990.

    “And wherever the water hammered, destruction was felt. Severe damage was sustained by homes, businesses, agricultural lands and public utilities such as bridges, water, power and sewer lines,” the slide presentation stated.

    I, along with my wife, and two other couples had been celebrating New Years Eve on Dec. 31, 1988 in St. George when around midnight, what sounded like the fire siren from downtown, went off. At first, we thought it was being rung to bring in the New Year, but then it continued its piercing sound on and on for what to us seemed like an hour.

    Something didn’t seem right, so I turned on a police scanner we had at home, and that’s when we learned that the Quail Creek dike had burst.

    According to the Jan. 2, 1989 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, “More than 1,500 people were forced from their homes, but no one was killed or injured” when the dike burst early Sunday, Jan. 1.

    “A 200-foot breach opened in the 1,820 foot-long dike at 12:08 a.m. after a day long effort failed to suppress ever expanding leaks. Water 20 feet deep poured through the opening initially and a flow 8 to 12 feet deep persisted for four hours,” The Tribune reported.

    The “flood waters damaged 50 to 60 homes and 100 units of a riverside apartment complex around St. George. It also buried farm fields along the Virgin River under two feet of silt and mud, caused the deaths of an unknown number of cattle and horses, and damaged scores of farm buildings,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “The dike failure also closed Interstate 15 for 14 hours Sunday because of massive debris carried into the narrow Virgin River canyon traversed by the freeway and river.”

    Gov. Norm Bangerter declared Washington County a disaster area, and he noted in a Jan. 9 press conference that the dike failure resulted in an estimated $12 million in damages to private residences, businesses, agriculture, state and local government and to federal highway systems.

    I remember that in addition to major flooding that occurred to homes and farms down river from the dike, the flooding also damaged the Hurricane Bridge on S.R. 9, the Washington Fields Bridge in Washington City, the River Road Bridge in St. George, and wiped out the Washington Fields Diversion Dam, a 600-foot structure built across the Virgin River in 1891.

    The dike project began in 1982 on the $23.5 million project, but seepage around the dam and dike have been problems since the facility’s dedication in September 1985, The Tribune reported.

    “The memory of this tragedy will always be with us to remind us of the need to utilize every technology possible to prevent it from ever happening again,” the Washington County Water Conservancy District Quail Creek Slide presentation on Aug. 7, 1990, stated.

    “All claims by individuals have been settled by the Water District, with funding coming from the State Legislature, insurance companies and Federal Emergency Management Administration. The Federal Highway Administration has provided funding for the rebuilding of roads and bridges, the District’s slide presentation stated.

    “The Water District has made every effort to provide fair compensation to those with property loss as a result of the dike failure. Not one single lawsuit has come about through litigation against the District due to unacceptable (sic) compensation,” the District’s slide presentation added.

    “Investigators determined that the underlying causes of [the dike] failure were foundation seepage and leakage dating back to completion of the earth dam in 1985, according to an article written by Don Gehring in the October 1990 issue of Concrete International; The Magazine of the American Concrete Institute.

    Replacing the failed dike was a roller compacted concrete dam, which was completed in July 1990, according to Gehring’s article.

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