Deaths of brothers raise concern over canal’s safety
The Murdock Canal could be called an attractive danger. Joggers run along side the conduit and daredevils have even used wave boards to skim along water.
But the deaths of two brothers who tried to scuba dive into an inverted siphon on the canal last week near Dry Creek in Lehi has renewed concern over the safety of the canal.
With the rise of developments around the open water canal and roadside fence gates that must remain open so water officials can access the channel, enclosure of the canal seems to be the only answer for better public safety, according to officials.
There is conflicting information on the number of deaths on the Murdock Canal. But Beverley Heffernan, environment group chief for the Bureau of Reclamation Provo office, said she remembers 14 deaths over the past 20 years in different spots along the more than 21-mile-long canal. The bureau owns the canal but leases the maintenance and the use to the Provo River Water Users Association.
A proposal to enclose the Murdock Canal was in the works well before Byron and Ashton Hobbs swam into the inverted siphon in full scuba gear on Oct. 1 but never swam out.
Officials at the association have applied to transfer the ownership of the canal to the association and have been meeting with north county city leaders to get support for the enclosure of the project.
Keith Denos, general manager of the association, said in a few weeks officials are traveling to Washington, D.C., to ask Congress to transfer the title. And the bureau will be holding public open houses to discuss the enclosure at the end of October.
If the association owns the canal, then it will be able to take out tax-exempt bonds to help pay for project. Without the bonds the association can’t afford to enclose the canal, Denos said.
The estimated cost to close the canal, which provides secondary irrigation water to north Utah and Salt Lake counties, is $115 million. The earliest it could be completed is four years, Denos said.
Last week’s accident has made canal safety the No. 1 reason to enclose the canal.
“It’s certainly been brought more to the forefront,” Denos said. “This (accident) may help other people realize the reasons and benefits for this project and the safety issue may get people supporting the ideas.”
The Murdock Canal is the largest man-made canal in the county and runs from Provo Canyon to the Point of the Mountain. It has four different places where there are inverted siphons, which sucks the water down into an enclosed pipe and then shoots it back out.
Last year when development started appearing around the Dry Creek portion of the Murdock Canal in Lehi and Highland, the association decided to put up a screen at the entrance to the siphon that could catch debris or people from going into the 1,200-foot tube. There are plans for similar screens at the other three siphon entrances in the county.
“As we become more densely populated we need precautions,” Denos said. “The canal used to go through farmlands and orchards and now travels right next to subdivisions.”
The 100 gates that lead to the different check points along the canal must remain open from April to October so the water master can access the canal, Denos said. But without regular patrolling of the canal, the open road gates mean easy access for anyone.
Sgt. Jeff Swenson, Lehi Police Department, said enforcement of trespassing at the canal is difficult because the canal is far off the road and can’t be easily seen from a car traveling on city streets. Three months ago, he wrote five trespassing tickets after he was notified that teenagers were swimming and using motorized vehicles to pull wave boards in the water.
“The enclosure is a good idea,” Swenson said. “I know people swim in that canal and it is so dangerous.”
Heffernan said there are no trespassing and no swimming signs clearly posted but if people want to illegally use the canal they will.
“We can put up and repair fences but if they are determined to get in they will,” she said.
The Provo Bench Canal, which runs four miles from Provo Canyon to 100 East and 300 South in Orem, is another open water canal. It divides in Orem and turns into the North Union Canal which runs to Lindon.
Richard Gappmayer, secretary for the Provo Bench Canal, said safety is always a concern and said there has been talk of enclosing the Provo Bench but the cost is too great. The Provo Bench canal is more difficult to access than the Murdock Canal.
“Kids can always crawl over fences and you can’t protect them from themselves,” he said.
If the Murdock Canal was enclosed, trails would be built over it so that people could use the space for recreation, Denos said.
Elisabeth Nardi can be reached at 344-2547 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.