Utah Department of Wildlife Resources Fisheries Biologist Richard Hepworth said many news reports have inferred that the lake is currently without water, or that it is not worth visiting, when in fact there is still a lot of water in the lake, and a lot of 5- and 10-pound Splake waiting to get caught. He said they have doubled the fish limit preparing for the possibility they may not be able to save the huge fish in the lake.
Contrary to what many think, the water in the lake is not the concern, but the big fish that have developed in the fishery over the years, Hepworth said.
If the water is allowed to drain out and the dike repaired in the fall, the water will be back in the lake by spring, but it will take between three to five years to bring the fishery back to where it is now, and develop the big fish out-of-state anglers travel there to catch.
The worry, according to State Rep. Evan Vickers, is that these anglers will get out of the habit of coming to the lake and go elsewhere, and when the fishery has redeveloped they won’t come back and the economic benefit will be lost.
The widespread public concern to save the fish in the lake and the economic impact provided by those who travel to the recreation area has resulted in a coalition of elected officials, state and federal agencies and private individuals coming together to create some solutions to save the fishery, and repair the dike for coming years.
THE COST TO REPAIR THE DIKE
The lake is losing between 2 and 2.5 feet of water per month, and the real question as to what their options are, according to Hepworth, all revolves around money. With budgets for the upcoming year already set for government agencies, and continued budget cuts, officials are scrambling trying to raise funds.
The cost to fix the dike while there is still water in the lake, and save the fish, will be approximately $300,000, but only approximately $150,000 to repair it once it is drained, which would be by late September.
To repair the dike before the lake has drained requires specialized equipment, divers, the building of structures, and a lot of technical preparation.
Hepworth said Vickers has been very involved from the beginning. Vickers said he met at Navajo Lake last week with elected officials and representatives of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the Utah Division of Water Rights to look at the dike and discuss remedies for the situation. A public meeting in the DWR offices took place that night.
Local contractors have volunteered their time, expertise and equipment to repair the lake, but it is not a simple task.
“We all want to get this fixed, but some people are talking like they want to just go up there and back a dump truck full of dirt and rocks up against the dike and fill the hole, but unfortunately it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Vickers said. “The other problem is we could spend all this money and then the dike could breech again in a different spot, because it’s just old and needs to be replaced. So it’s a very difficult thing.”
Vickers explained that because the lake exists solely as a fishery and for recreation, and not for irrigation or other practical needs, the options for finding funding in the state or federal level are almost non-existent.
“Money for this kind of thing is earmarked and has to go only for certain things, so we are scrambling and trying to find the money to fix it anywhere we can,” he said.
The DWR and the Forest Service are putting their money into a long-term solution and have begun with core samples to determine the true condition of the dike, and where they need to go from here in plans to replace it. However, seeing the commitment by so many citizens in the area to save the lake, the DWR has committed they will find some money to pitch in for the short-term solution. They have not said exactly how much that will be.
Hepworth said if it is not fixed properly now it do more harm than good in the long run.
IMPACT TO THE ECONOMY
Vickers said he has approached the Governor’s office of Economic Development in finding money to repair the dike as Navajo Lake is second only to Fish Lake as a fishery destination and its popularity with out-of-state anglers brings in a lot of dollars to both Iron and Kane Counties and to communities like Duck Creek where these anglers, many who own or rent cabins, bring their dollars and shop in their stores.
He has not yet received an answer from the economic development agency, but he said they may have to accept that $300,000 is a lot to come by when budgets are tight.
If the lake drains this year and then the dike is repaired in the late fall, Hepworth said it will refill by next spring and they will restock it with catchable, 10-inch fish.
“We will have the fishery up and running by next spring and we won’t even lose one season,” he said. “But we won’t have the same big fish we do now. We have some wonderful, big fish in there right now and we hate to lose them.”
Vickers said this has really “been a double whammy” for the community of Duck Creek.
“First S.R. 14 and now this,” he said. “You think, ‘how many daggers to the heart can these poor guys take? That’s why I am hoping to get something out of the economic development side.”
If the lake does drain, Vickers said they have the opportunity to replace and expand the existing dock and boat ramp, which he said will really enhance the destination.
Regardless of what ends up happening, Hepworth said it has been amazing to watch people come together and try to save the fishery.
“It has been a really neat experience to see so many come together, including sportsman and angling groups as well as private citizens and government agencies all working together and pitching in,” he said.
He added that the solution could include the labor of many volunteers once the plan to repair the dike is in place.
THE LAKE’S STORY
The dike was built in the 1930s by Cedar City residents who wanted to maintain their fishing spot on a permanent basis, and create a fishery. Through the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps the dike grew and reached its current height by the 1950s.
Navajo Lake is stocked with Rainbow and Splake Trout. Splake are a sterile fish produced from a Lake and Brook trout hybrid. They grow to such big sizes because they are big enough to eat the undesirable Utah Chub that are ever prevalent in the lake. Hepworth said the Chub will undoubtedly survive if the lake drains.
The dike has breeched several times before, according to Hepworth, who approximates nine times since the 1970s, but the breeches were small and the DWR repaired them. In May of 2010, following very wet years, the 50-foot breech occurred and there was too much water to even be able to see the damage let alone do anything about fixing it.
It was not until this dry year that the breech could be seen and addressed.
As the water spills over to the east end of the natural basin that allows the lake to exist, it runs into three separate sink holes that Hepworth describes as lava tubes formed in the volcanic rock. Each tube takes the water to a different spot on the mountain and feeds Cascade Falls, Duck Creek Springs, and the Mammoth Creek area.