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Utah County farmers still cleaning out debris in dam three years after wildfires

Posted at 7:17 PM, Feb 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 21:17:34-05

SPANISH FORK, Utah — The Spanish Fork Dam is what connects thousands to electricity and water for agriculture needs, and it’s looking like — for the third year in a row — the elements may be against those who need this water the most.

Nearly 10 years before the rail line passing through Spanish Fork Canyon was completed, a dam was built.

The Spanish Fork Dam is used for generating electricity and supplies 3,400 farmers with water for 42,000 acres of land in Utah County.

It's not likely the early farmers understood how vital the Spanish Fork River would be as a source of water, nor could they have foreseen the challenges modern day farmers would face.

No one, not even Sterling Brown, anticipated the mud runoff from the "Pole Creek" and "Bald Mountain" fires three years ago.

"Last October, we pulled 2,000 dump trucks of dirt out of this system as a result of those fires," said Brown, the general manager of the Strawbery Water Users Association.

The year before that, Brown said they pulled 6,000 dump trucks of dirt.

Who paid for that?

The farmers and ranchers.

READ: $600 million in claims filed against Forest Service over 2018 Pole Creek Fire, flooding

The last time locals saw any federal government assistance for the dam was back in 1905, when Brown said a $3.5 million loan was given to farmers for building the structure.

"It took them 48 years to pay back the government for that," said Brown.

Farmers and ranchers pay out of pocket to maintain and clean the dam, along with paying an assessment fee to use the water for agriculture.

Yet, locals pay without even knowing if there will be any water left for their crops come spring.

"In April and May, during the spring runoff weeks, the water level is where that high rust mark is," said Brown, pointing five to 10 feet above the current waterline.

WATCH: Regrowth in the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fire areas

Watching the snow on the mountains, they're hoping it will be enough to nourish the soil.

If not, Brown said farmers will plant small grains and wheat — crops that don't call for as much water.

"Agriculture is a thirsty demand," said Brown. "Farmers and ranchers are discussing, right now, what they will plant on their farms."

Brown and his associates are praying for rain and storm systems like Utah is seeing mid-February.

"We need another hundred days like this," said Brown.

If things turn for the worst, Brown said they can pump water from out of the ground, but that solution would eliminate most of the farmers' profit.