Navajo Lake breach fixed

Last modified on Oct 17, 2013

Photo taken by Evelyn Ashworth

Article found in: The Spectrum November 18, 2012

CEDAR CITY — A 50-foot breach in the Navajo Lake dike that had been lowering the water level and putting recreational activities and fish survival at risk has now been fixed.

Iron County Engineer Steve Platt said thanks to the efforts of Schmidt Construction and RBG Engineering, the contractors chosen for the project, the repair was completed in about four weeks — just before winter weather would have prevented a repair this year.

“If we would have gotten weathered out this winter, it couldn’t have been fixed until late summer and fall,” Platt said, adding that a year without Navajo Lake offering recreational activities would have been detrimental to nearby Duck Creek.

Navajo Lake is located off state Route 14 in Kane County near the Iron County border. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the lake was formed in 1930 when the dike was constructed to capture water from natural springs and snow runoff from the mountains, with the goal of creating a fishing and recreation area.

The east side of the dike is an overflow area containing numerous lava tubes that drain water out of the lake bed, feeding nearby Cascade Falls and parts of Duck Creek.

A wet spring in 2010 caused the breach in the dike, and high water levels at Navajo Lake through 2011 prevented any work to fix the breach.

The breach allowed water to drain from Navajo Lake at the rate of about one foot per month.

Rick Van Elst said he comes to Navajo Lake to catch splake, a game fish introduced to Navajo Lake to combat the invasive Utah chub.

“I’m tickled pink to see the dike fixed,” Van Elst said. “I would have been heartbroken to miss a season.”

Businesses and residents of Duck Creek are also happy to see the dike fixed. Duck Creek had its main access from Cedar City cut off for a year by a massive landslide that shut state Route 14 down, and an empty Navajo Lake would have been disastrous to the area economy, according to Platt.

“I went up in the middle of September and nobody was there,” Platt said. “It was like a ghost town.”

Dianne Rudnicki, a member of the Duck Creek Business Owners Association, said Duck Creek businesses rely on the fishermen, boaters and campers who visit Navajo Lake.

“The stores and restaurants and hotels — half of their income is from fishermen and campers,” Rudnicki said. “The general store had to close early this year because there was no one out there.”

DNR studies show the Navajo Lake area attracted more than 8,000 campers in 2011, with 65 percent of those coming from out of state and staying an average of 3.7 days. The use of Navajo Lake exceeds that of Panguitch Lake and Kolob Reservoir.

Phil Schmidt, owner of Schmidt Construction, said the hardest part of the construction process was “de-watering” the area around the breach, a process that required almost a week’s worth of working nonstop.

Schmidt said they started by building a coffer dam around the breach. They then punched 20 foot wells to drain the water away. When that wasn’t working, they dug long trenches to keep the water seeping through the coffer dam at bay.

“We had it partially cleaned out, but water was still seeping in,” Schmidt said. “We started working Thursday at 7 a.m. and didn’t quit until Saturday midnight.”

Schmidt said after the three-day marathon session they couldn’t let up for more than a few hours or the work site would have been covered in water. It was an exhaustive process that ended up paying off.

“That section we built will last forever,” Schmidt said.

The same may not be true for the entire dike, however. After spending time completely submerged, the dike is riddled with small holes that bring the long-term viability of the dike into question.

The temporary fix cost $160,000, raised by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, including $50,000 from Kane County. Iron County offered to provide equipment and labor if needed, but the cost was considerably less than anticipated, according to Platt, who said all Iron County needed to do was chop down a few trees.

“The fact that the dike is fixed is good,” said Rudnicki. “But we need the whole thing replaced.”

Rudnicki has been heading fundraisers for about six weeks with an eye on a permanent replacement — a project that would cost millions. Currently, Rudnicki has raised about $3,000, but hopes to build enough public interest to raise the money fast enough to have a new dike by 2015.

“This isn’t over yet,” Rudnicki said.

But it should provide a at least a few more years of fishing for rainbow trout and splake, something that excites Van Elst.

“For my money, it’s the best fishing in the state,” Van Elst said. “Seeing it drain away was heartbreaking. I’m glad I’ll get to fish there this year.”

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