Victims of fast-moving landslide vent frustrations to Riverdale City Council

Wednesday , February 07, 2018 - 7:02 PM2 comments

RIVERDALE — Standing before the Riverdale City Council in mud-spattered jeans and a work shirt, Becky Meehan began her remarks by apologizing for her messy appearance.

But if she was hoping for any sort of apology from her city, it wasn’t forthcoming.

Meehan was among a handful of Riverdale residents who showed up at Tuesday’s council meeting to vent their frustrations over the city’s handling of the Spring Creek Road landslide. On Nov. 19, a portion of the bluff behind 600 West in Riverdale gave way, eventually forcing the evacuation of three homes. Parts of the hillside have continued to slough off, and last Saturday, another section gave way, threatening a fourth home to the south of the three currently under mandatory evacuation.

> 3 Riverdale homes under mandatory evacuation as land continues to crumble below

Meehan and her husband, Mike, own a farm at the base of the slide, where all that mud and debris has ended up. The Meehans came to the meeting directly from their farm, which is under an ever-growing layer of that mud.

“I’ve lost buildings, lost equipment,” Meehan told the city council during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. “I’ve had well over $300,000 in loses. And now my horses are at risk.”

> Riverdale landslide continues to chew its way toward homes

For 45 minutes, residents peppered the mayor and city council with questions and concerns. At times, the exchange became tense.

Although everyone agrees that the water flowing out of the hillside is causing the disaster, they disagree on the source of that water. City officials say tests have shown that the water emerging from the base of the slide is consistent with natural spring water, and that it doesn’t contain the markers that would suggest a leaking culinary water pipe from somewhere up on the bluff.

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But Louis Donovan, owner of one of the three homes that have been evacuated thus far, disputed the city’s claims that point toward natural springs.

Donovan says he and other residents have paid for their own independent water tests, and those test have come back “inconclusive.” Donovan also said that in meetings with Weber Basin Water Conservancy District officials, he was told the district’s tests have been inconclusive as well.

“Inconclusive water is what it is, and we need to find the source,” Donovan said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Riverdale City Council unanimously approved a resolution proclaiming a “local emergency” in and around the landslide area.

Although Riverdale Mayor Norm Searle initially declared a state of emergency for the slide area, the full council needed to consent and declare a local emergency in order for it to extend beyond 30 days, according to city administrator Rodger Worthen. The resolution passed unanimously on Tuesday, and the local emergency designation will continue, according to the proclamation, “until its termination is proclaimed by the City Council.”

Stressing they make no promises, city officials say the resolution may make it easier for residents to get government assistance in the wake of the disaster. In an executive summary of the resolution for the council, city attorney Steve Brooks wrote that “declaring this on a local level opens doors for other possible county, state and federal options and possible resources. This doesn’t mean that anything will happen or is available only that this act must be done before it will ever be looked at on a higher level.”

Searle bristled at the suggestion by some residents that the city had abandoned them in their hour of need.

“Riverdale City has been concerned about that water ever since this occurred,” he said.

Searle said six tests have been conducted on the city’s water system, and they’ve been unable to find any leaks.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t leaks, but we haven’t found them,” he told residents.

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But Donovan says he suspects the culprit is leaking culinary water pipes in Washington Terrace. He believes the smoking gun is the sizable discrepancy between the yearly amount of culinary water purchased by that city, and the amount the city reports actually using. Donovan said the 2015 numbers show a 20 percent difference; 2016 jumped to 28 percent. That amounts to 114 million gallons of misplaced water, according to Donovan.

“Where has this missing water from Washington Terrace gone?” he asked.

Riverdale officials suggested that just because there’s a difference in the gallons purchased and the metered gallons used, it doesn’t necessarily point toward a massive leak — many parks and other lawn areas of that city would use unmetered water.

And Brooks said it would be extremely difficult to trace any leaks to that city.

“We’re never going to pin it on Washington Terrace,” he said. “It could be South Ogden, it could be Uintah.”

Residents echoed frustration that the city has made so little progress in determining what is causing the hillside to crumble. Some also feel the city is slow to communicate with residents.

“We just need answers,” Becky Meehan said.

However, repeated calls and visits to the city administrator’s office have been ignored, according to Meehan.

“I can’t get anybody to set an appointment or time with me,” she said.

City Councilman Alan Arnold said public works, the city attorney, police and fire are doing everything they can, and that blaming the city for an uncontrollable situation isn’t fair.

“Attacking people in city council is not the way to do it,” Arnold told residents.

But Arnold also said the city administrator and city attorney — although in a difficult position — should at least be responsive to residents’ calls.

“I think we owe all of the residents that phone call,” he said.

Arnold said phone numbers for council members are on the city’s website.

“If you don’t get a call back (from Worthen or Brooks), call me directly and I will hunt them down,” he said.

Brett Stephenson owns and rents out the house that is directly south of the three evacuated homes. That house is now threatened by the most recent slide, and he’s unhappy that the city seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“They have this attitude that they’ve got to wait until the water stops,” he said. “But when do you think the water is going to stop?”

If his house goes off the side of the hill, Stephenson says he’s out a quarter of a million dollars. But what angers him the most was a comment he says the city administrator made when he met with him.

“He said, ‘This is what you get for building on top of a hill,’ ” Stephenson said. “They want to put all the blame on the homeowners.”

The experts say there’s a good chance the advancing landslide will eventually take some of the homes. These are older homes, containing asbestos, and Searle said the city can’t have them falling over the cliff and that asbestos-contaminated debris working its way toward the Weber River.

At Tuesday’s meeting Searle hinted that at one point city officials were considering taking on the financial responsibility of demolishing and removing the homes, but then officials learned some of the residents had retained legal counsel.

“We could see that if we did anything we’d get nipped for it,” Searle said in explaining why the city is reluctant to become involved.

“People are retaining counsel because the city’s not doing anything,” Mike Meehan said after the meeting. “I’m clearly frustrated with these guys here.”

He said the situation on the hillside continues to deteriorate, and that mud and silt has now covered almost their entire 10-acre farm.

“It is absolutely a disaster,” he said.

Still, Meehan tries to retain his sense of humor. With all the water that continues to pour out of the hillside, he wonders if officials couldn’t find a use for it.

“If Utah is going to have a drought, maybe the state could pipe it away,” he said. “Because there’s no lack of water here.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at

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