Broken dam in northeast Nevada flooding homes, farms and railroads

KSL – by McKenzie Romero

MONTELLO, Nevada — A broken dam in Elko County, Nevada, flooded farmland and homes in the community of Montello, stopped Union Pacific trains nearby and prompted a warning to people in extreme northwest Utah to avoid the rural highway into the Silver State.

And while Utah has recently experienced a quick warmup after heavy snows, state water officials think a similar breach is unlikely in the Beehive State.  

The National Weather Service reported Wednesday the failure of the 21 Mile Dam was sending water spilling out in a “dangerous and life-threatening situation.”

“Water in the reservoir continues to rapidly empty and is heading downstream. Ongoing flash flooding will continue and could potentially get worse,” the National Weather Service advised. A flash flood warning for Elko County has been issued through midnight Thursday.

As the water flows into the Dake Reservoir, there is a risk the dam there could overflow leading to more flooding, according to the warning.

Union Pacific rail traffic in the area has also come to a halt, Justin Jacobs, a Union Pacific spokesman for the area, confirmed.

Trains headed toward the flood-affected area have been stopped and face indeterminate delays, Jacobs said, while Union Pacific is assessing options to re-route trains that are further out.

It was unclear whether freight or commuter trains, or both, were being impacted, Jacobs said. And until the water stops flowing, Union Pacific will be unable to inspect the tracks and see just how much damage has been done.

Fast-flowing water through the streets of Montello, an unincorporated community in Elko County in northeast Nevada, had emergency crews responding to set up sand bags around homes and businesses. Footage captured by KSL-TV’s Chopper 5 shows wide breaks in the earthen dam, water rushing along rail routes and trains stopped on the tracks.

Kevin Hall, a captain with the East Elko Fire Protection District, said the flooding and the breach are due to heavy runoff and snowmelt. Earlier in the day responders were dealing with just a few inches of water, but since the dam failed it has risen to a few feet in depth, he said.

“We’ve got about 3-foot trenches down in the front of the businesses now that it’s washing out along the pavement,” Hall said. “We’ve got a fuel station, a gas station here, and we’re trying to protect the pumps from fuel contamination into the water, which causes big problems.”

Hall said areas of Nevada’s state Route 233 are also at risk of washing out and warned drivers out of Box Elder County to stay away.

“Do not travel it, it’s getting dangerous,” Hall warned.

Dam failure caused flash flooding in east central Elko County, Nevada. (Chopper 5, KSL TV)

As January storms dumped twice the normal snowpack in Utah’s mountains, dam safety engineer Everett Taylor with the Division of Water Rights says the state’s reservoirs are about half full at last measurement and are prepared to take on plenty of runoff.

Representatives from the division meet monthly with the Natural Resources Conservation Service regarding the state’s snowpack as well as the National Weather Service to assess projected weather patterns, Taylor said. The collaborative effort is designed to pinpoint concerns with reservoirs before they arise.

“If we’re anticipating a large runoff, then we can begin to draw water down from the reservoirs so we have additional storage capacity for the water,” Taylor said. “At this point in time, that’s not the case. We have suffered some pretty good drought the past few years with minimal snowpack, so we have good storage available to capture this runoff.”

Taylor also noted that the warm up Utahns have felt in the valleys hasn’t yet impacted higher altitudes.

Regular dam inspections are also ongoing, Taylor said.

“We generally identify maintenance issues, and in those cases we let the owners know what maintenance needs to be done and we’ll follow up with them on our next inspection,” Taylor said. “If we see a significant issue, something that raises significant concern that we see poses a risk, we will address it immediately.”

There are no concerns about any Utah dams failing, Taylor said.

In Wasatch County, the Heber City Police Department warned residents in a Facebook post Wednesday to prepare for runoff as the weather warms.

“If your home is by a canal, creek, in a flood plain, or if you have experienced flooding before – you may want to consider the purchase of sand and sandbags,” police said.

The department also advised residents to consider looking into flood insurance.

Contributing: Nicole Vowell

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