Monday, July 13, 2009

Wet, Soupy Soil Hindering Recovery Efforts From The Logan Landslide And Flood In Utah; Landslide Now Believed To Have Triggered Canal Breach

Note: All posts on the Logan landslide can be viewed HERE, starting with the most recent post.

Wet, soupy soil is hindering efforts at recovery what possibility could be the bodies of three victims of the landslide and flood from the Logan Northern Canal along the 900 block of Canyon Road in Logan, Utah. But a new story from KSL now shows that experts believe a landslide caused the canal to give way.

Newest batch of media stories:
-- Logan Herald-Journal (Body search continues: ‘Wet, soupy soil’ slows recovery efforts for family buried in debris)
-- Logan Herald-Journal (Lt. gov.: ‘Maybe this is a wake-up call’)
-- Logan Herald-Journal photo album (Landslide Day 2 - photo #5 particularly informative)
-- Salt Lake Tribune (Utah records show history of Logan canal problems)
-- Deseret News (Crews prepare site before resuming search for buried family in Logan)
-- KSL Channel 5 (Landslide likely caused canal to give way - the NEWEST story) KSL video embedded below:

Video Courtesy of

Efforts to recover the three missing victims of the landslide, identified as a mother and her two children, Jacqueline Leavey, 43; Victor Alanis, 13; and Abbey Alanis, 12, who lived at the now-destroyed house at 915 Canyon Road, are being hindered by wet, soupy soil in the area. Heavy equipment is now being brought in, but must be deployed cautiously. The debris on top has been stripped away, leaving only the bottom half of the house, which is covered by mud and other debris. Within the debris already removed was found a purse and the driver’s license of a 43-year-old woman.

The three victims are believed to be trapped within the mud, and the soupy nature of the mud dampens hopes that they could be surviving in an embedded air pocket. The three victims were seen to have entered the house just before the landslide, but were not seen to have emerged, nor have they given any signs that they might still be alive.

As is often the case in developing stories, misinformation attributable to honest confusion was disseminated. Most media outlets initially identified the canal as the Logan-Hyde Park-Smithfield Canal. A commenter to my previous post alerted me that this is not the case; the Logan-Hyde Park-Smithfield Canal is actually diverted from Logan River further up the canyon and never flows on the south side of Highway 89. The latest report from the Salt Lake Tribune identifies the breached canal as the Logan Northern Canal.

But while recovery efforts proceed, two additional issues are being probed. First, were there signs of a possible problem in advance sufficient to warrant issuing an official warning or even an evacuation order earlier? And second, did the Logan Northern Canal fail strictly of its own accord, or was it fatally weakened by the network of natural springs that run under the canal as well as the weight of the northern hillside? The first question is triggered by several reports from locals of water on Canyon Road several days before the landslide. They claim that since the water was cloudy and dirty rather than clear, this was a possible sign of an impending landslide, and believe a warning should have been issued to residents based upon that information alone. The city did receive three complaints about water on Canyon Road in recent weeks, but the problems were adjudged to be coming from the springs and drain pipes up on the private properties, over which the city has no jurisdiction.

The second question is a bit more complex and involves jurisdiction and responsibility. Colleen Gnehm, water commissioner of the Logan River, which feeds several local canals, said she would like to know more about how the irrigation channels are maintained. "But my jurisdiction ends when the water goes into the canal system," she said. She noted the canal was inspected by the group that owns it just two weeks before the break. But although she expressed confidence in the way those inspections are carried out, Gnehm conceded that no one in government was exercising oversight or enforcing standards. Logan public works director Mark Nielsen simply noted that "We have to assume they [the canal operators] do their jobs," Further complicating this issue is the fact that the various springs are owned by different landowners.

After the water was drained from the canal on Saturday, an inspection revealed several areas below the water line where concrete is eroding into rubble. Vertical and diagonal cracks also line some sections. And in some areas the ditch's walls are bulging under the weight of the northern hillside.

During his visit to the site, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert also discussed responsibility. While he is reluctant to commit additional state funds at this point, he acknowledged after seeing the devastation and hearing about the jurisdictional disputes that there may be justification for additional public oversight. But Herbert doesn't want to overreact, because he believes it's not a frequent problem, and those homes have been there for over 70 years.

But according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the track record shows that there are dozens of cases, dating back more than 100 years, of landslides which have ravaged homes and endangered lives on Canyon Road. And in nearly every instance, the Logan Northern Canal has been blamed, according to the state geological records reviewed by the Tribune. Furthermore, Laura Andrade, who previously lived at the destroyed home for more than a decade starting in the mid 1980s, stated that the canal broke several times while she lived there. One break sent a torrent of mud and water into the back bedrooms of her rented home, causing a mess that took weeks to clean up. Another buried and ruined a newly planted front lawn. And Andrade recalled filling sandbags for hours on end to save a neighbor's home during one slide.

So obviously the present state of affairs in unacceptable and intolerable. There must be a funded and staffed mechanism created and dedicated to assure regular public oversight of these canals, to include inspection, and the canal itself must be rendered less of a threat. One possible solution, enacted on the Davis-Weber Canal after the 1999 Riverdale flood, is the pipe the canal for at least its entire length over the neighborhood. This would not only reduce the threat posed to its primary victims in the neighborhood, but would minimize interruptions in irrigation water supply for the secondary victims; namely, the downstream landowners who rely upon the canal water to irrigate their crops.

The one bright spot in this whole mess is that Utahns responded with their legendary organized generosity in disaster relief. As many as 1,000 people showed up to help clear mud and debris, which not only provided a morale boost, but undoubtedly helped emergency personnel respond more effectively.

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