ST. GEORGE – Officials celebrated the completion of the historic Shem Dam Tuesday, the last undertaking in a long series of repair and prevention projects completed in the wake of flooding throughout Washington County in the past decade.
County, tribal, state and federal officials gathered at the dam site near Gunlock to celebrate both the completion of the dam rehabilitation and the many other projects needed after severe flooding hit the county in 2005 and again in 2010.
“This is the finish of 45 projects in the last 10 years,” Washington County Public Works Director Ron Whitehead said. Projects ranged from small to large, totaling $74 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service Emergency Watershed Protection Program, and Washington County contributing about $25 million for the projects.
The Watershed Protection program was set up by Congress to respond to emergencies created by natural disasters and provides help to local communities to protect against future events of similar magnitude. Watershed Protection projects completed over the past 10 years in Washington County included 2 million tons of rock riprap installed along 20 miles of riverbanks in vulnerable areas.
“We’ve been the recipient of a lot of good work here,” Whitehead said, adding that the county has had a lot of federal agencies come in and say they can help but then aren’t heard from again.
“We’ve noticed that NRCS is here during the damage that’s being done, and a lot of people don’t know that,” Whitehead said. “I’ve sat in meetings and where people will go, ‘how long’s it going to take to get some help here?’ and I’ve already seen (the NRCS) go by. I know they’re here looking at (the damage).”
“I’ve gotten calls from (NRCS State Conservation Engineer Bronson Smart) going down the road the day something’s happening, ‘What’s going on down there, Ron?’” Whitehead said, “and it’s like, ‘Where are you? How’d you know this is happening?’”
The Shem Dam was in danger of failing and sending tons of accumulated sediment and debris downstream, threatening bridges and communities, after being damaged during past flooding, Whitehead said.
Rehabilitation on the dam began in January and cost $10 million, with the Watershed Protection Program funding 75 percent and Washington County providing the remaining 25 percent.
The dam is located on Gunlock Road, a mile north of the intersection with old Highway 91, on the Shivwits Reservation for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the Shivwits Band of Paiutes. Being on tribal land, the property is closed to visitors, but the dam can easily be seen from Gunlock Road.
The Shem Dam was originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1934 as an irrigation diversion for water that flowed in a canal around the Ivins-Santa Clara bench. The dam filled with sediment over the years, and while it is no longer used for irrigation, the dam has historic value the county wanted to preserve, Whitehead said.
Washington County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said that while the restored dam is beautiful, the benefit to the community may not be seen until the next flood – hopefully many years in the future. The project took cooperation among individuals and agencies, he said.
“These big projects, not one entity can take this on, it takes a team effort,” Renstrom said.
Lawrence Snow, a representative of the Shivwits Band of Paiutes, spoke of the increasing levels of trust between the Band and the local officials and credited Whitehead, other county officials and the projects that have been accomplished together with rebuilding trust and understanding.
“We all want this land to be better,” Snow said, calling the project a win-win for all parties and expressing the appreciation of the Shivwits Band of Paiutes for all the people and agencies involved.
The project has historical value to the Band, Snow said, and the dam is a monument to the Shivwits people and to Chief Shem, of pioneer times, who the dam is named after. The dam has historically provided irrigation water to the Band, he said.
“The Paiute people had corn, squash, fields, it’s in their history,” Snow said.
Downstream communities are also happy about the completion of the Shem Dam and other flood prevention projects.
“It’s huge for the city of Santa Clara, because it’s flood mitigation,” Santa Clara City Councilwoman Mary Jo Hafen said. “We’re right in the bull’s-eye, having been impacted (by flooding) three times in the last 10 years.”
“The NRCS and others have done a great job with the riprap and the prevention … I think we’re protected at this time,” Hafen said, “and we’ve protected the infrastructure and the properties along the creek. They’ve been great to work with, and we’re happy to see it done.”
In addition to flooding on the Santa Clara River, Santa Clara was also impacted by a dike failure Sept. 11, 2012.
Shem Dam history
According to the Washington County Historical Society website, the original Shem Dam was also known as the Winsor Dam and was constructed in 1909 as a brush and concrete structure about 600 feet upstream from the current location. The brush and concrete dam washed out in the spring of 1932 during a flood.
In 1933 and 1934, the current concrete and basalt boulder dam was built by Company 961 of the Zion Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The original structure was 42 feet high and more than 300 feet long.
A 1955 flood destroyed part of the dam, and it was repaired in 1958. In 2010, the dam was again heavily damaged by flooding, raising concerns about its structural integrity and ability to withstand future flood events.
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- Washington County Historical Society Shem Dam webpage
- Washington County Public Works Department webpage
- Traffic Advisory: Roadwork on Old Highway 91 to improve drainage
- Flood-damaged historic Shem Dam threatens bridges; rehabilitation bid awarded
- Ivins looks to prevent flooding with new drainage plan, improvements, 2014
- UPDATE: Washington City flooding; city responds, takes action
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