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Historic dam in Washington County restored; improvements to protect against future flooding

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Posted at 9:56 PM, Jun 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-03 08:29:54-04

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Utah - An historic dam in Washington County posed a threat to cities during flooding events, but instead of tearing it down, county officials restored it.

Washington County Commissioners, members of the Shivwits Band of Paiutes and representatives of the National Resources Conservation Service toured the completed renovation of Shem Dam, also known as Windsor Dam, Tuesday.

The $10 million restoration is part of a series of projects aimed at protecting communities from flooding along the Santa Clara River.

“We can’t armor everything, or we’d just have concrete channels,” said Washington County public works director Ron Whitehead. “But it will protect the areas better that we’ve worked in from future flooding events.”

The most extensive damage happened in January 2005, when the Santa Clara River flooded taking more than a dozen homes with it. Following that event engineers looked at weak spots along the river, and found Shem dam had also sustained severe damage.

“We discovered there had been some significant damage to the left abutment,” said Whitehead. “So we had to make some decisions.”

The decision came down to either tearing the historic dam down, or rebuilding it.

Shem dam was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, but the site has significance dating back to the early pioneers, who used a similar dam for irrigation.

The structure sits on the Shivwits Band of Paiutes reservation, and tribal members did not want to see it go.

“We wanted to save it,” said tribe member Lawrence Snow. “The naming of it, The Shem. Chief Shem of the Paiute people in Washington County. That’s why we wanted to keep it.”

Snow said the tribe worked well with the county and the state to restore the dam.

Work included building up the abutment that had collapsed and replacing the spillway with a lower structure.

In all the NRCS and the county have done close to $74 million in improvements along the Santa Clara river over the past 10 years to buildings, homes and bridges to help them withstand the effects of future flooding.