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Watching Fontenelle Dam: Anxiety Rising With Water

June 22, 1986|BILL CURRY | Times Staff Writer

GREEN RIVER, Wyo. — Wayne and Pearl Deck have moved their cedar chest filled with irreplaceable family memorabilia to higher ground.

They've packed suitcases that they keep in the car.

And now they are worrying and waiting--waiting for the call to evacuate in the event of the failure of the dam on the Green River 62 miles upstream of their trim little house here. They live only a block from the river, and some neighbors have already begun removing furniture from their houses.

"There's real fear," says Pearl Deck. "If it goes, I'm just going to shut my eyes and hope the house doesn't get washed away."

Ten years after the catastrophic rupture of the Teton Dam in eastern Idaho, federal inspectors have declared the condition of Fontenelle Dam unsafe, and now, with an extraordinary snowmelt--170% of normal--flowing down from the Wind River Mountains, Fontenelle's reservoir is filling up faster than at any time in its history.

For many, that is an ominous development at a reservoir that was emptied as a precaution only a year ago. The water level today is 50 feet higher than it was then, and at one point rising nearly five feet a day.

"Russian roulette," is how one resident described the situation in a call to a radio talk show, "that's what it boils down to."

"They have told us it was unsafe, and if it was unsafe a year ago, then it's unsafe now," said Wayne Deck, who is 68.

"We're anxious, but we're not panicked," said Wayne Cook, regional superintendent for water and land in the Upper Colorado Region of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built and operates the dam.

"We've been very careful to take precautions. We've done everything up to evacuating the flood plain. Had we been able to keep it drained, we would have.

"This is probably the bureau's No. 1 problem right now."

The bureau is preparing a $52-million repair proposal and says, in a draft environmental assessment, that the only alternative is to breach Fontenelle by removing a large center section of the dam and allowing the Green River to flow untamed. It is an unspeakable notion in the arid West, where reclamation projects provide the cheap water and cheap power that can turn sagebrush lands into cities.

Would Affect 1,200 Jobs

"Breaching would sure put Sweetwater County on its ear," said Paul Schwieger, Wyoming's water development administrator. He added that 1,200 jobs are dependent on a power plant that is cooled by water from Fontenelle.

Moreover, the Fontenelle Dam is critical to Wyoming getting its full and jealously guarded share of water from the Colorado River. Without it, millions of gallons of water belonging to Wyoming, the headwaters of the Colorado, would flow away to the thirsty farms and cities of the desert Southwest.

Already, the state has set aside $5 million as its share of the Fontenelle repair costs, but it is not at all certain the Reagan Administration will agree to $52 million worth of repairs in an age of budget-cutting and $200-billion federal deficits.

"I know it's hard, the way the federal deficit is," said Wayne Deck.

Circulating Petition

"But there have to be priorities other than defense," added his wife. Pearl Deck, 65, is circulating a petition calling for repair or breaching of the dam as soon as possible.

The current condition of Fontenelle is but another sad chapter in its 22-year history. It was conceived, in the spirit of reclamation and pork-barrel politics, as part of the Colorado River Storage Project: The idea was to supply water for agricultural irrigation. After construction began in June, 1961, it was discovered that the soil would not sustain crops, but the dam was completed, nonetheless, for municipal and industrial uses.

Most of that municipal and industrial demand has yet to materialize, and today, the state of Wyoming sells only a third of its Fontenelle water allotment.

Seepage Problem Grows

Fontenelle Dam was finished in 1964--and nearly failed the following year, when seepage carried away parts of its earthen face on the downstream side. The reservoir was drained and repairs were made, but the seepage soon returned, and it grows worse with time.

By 1982, structural problems were evident. The level of the reservoir was gradually lowered until, in May of 1985, it was emptied.

It has since risen within 10 feet of capacity, and the water is seeping under the dam's foundation.

There is, Cook says, no evidence of erosion, no sign of "a growing hole in the bottom of Fontenelle." But he added: "We don't have anything inside the dam telling us what's going on." It was erosion from seepage along one side that caused the Teton Dam to give way on June 5, 1976, a failure that resulted in the deaths of 11 people.

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