Moab’s regional wastewater treatment plant on 400 North was last upgraded in 1996. [Travis Holtby/ Moab Sun News]

Homes and businesses in Grand County connected to Moab’s sewer system will see an increase in their sewer bill this month. The 5-percent rate raise is the first of what will likely be several raises in the coming years, as the city moves to update its sewage and water systems.

“The sewage rates are already raised and in effect this month,” said Rebecca Andrus, Moab’s city engineer. “The waste water treatment plant requires upgrades and we have been working on a facilities plan for the past couple years, looking at various options for increasing both the capacity of the plant and its ability to treat effluent.”

The Moab Wastewater Treatment Plant has not been upgraded since 1996. Moab’s needs have grown and changed since then and upgrades are needed for the city to keep pace with development, Andrus said.

While the treatment plant is in need of more immediate upgrades, Moab’s entire sewer and water infrastructure will likely need to be retrofitted or replaced in the coming years.

The majority of the city lines were put in place during the Uranium Boom, between 50 and 60 years ago. The life expectancy for such systems is usually around 40 years.

“The problem is that the existing infrastructure that was there at the beginning is still there, and there has been some upgrades in the water and the sewer system, but most of it has been in the ground working,” said Jeff Foster, Moab’s director of public works. “But some of those things are getting old enough where they are at the end of their useful life.”

The scale of such an operation means that it will have to be done over decades.

“We’re looking at a total of 43 miles of waterlines,” Andrus said. “The total magnitude of it is significant. If we replaced every pipe in a 50 year time period – we would be replacing 4600 feet of pipe each year.”

There are also 33 miles of aging sewer lines, as well as storm drains, that need to be repaired or replaced. And though there are currently no major problems, Andrus said it is cheaper to deal with the pipes before an emergency occurs.

Another issue with the project is that records of the pipe installations are lacking; the city is not exactly sure where some of the lines run.

Luckily, Questar Gas has been working to map out the pipes under the city as they move to install new gas lines.

“It is helping with our asset management,” Andrus said of Questar’s work. “It is pretty fortuitous.”

This information has been helpful as the city and the public works department have worked to draw up an asset management plan this year.

“This year is a planning year to identify all the issues we have, and get a game plan for this future,” Foster said.

The immediate need for improvements to the treatment plant stems from the fact the it has exceeded its state environmental permit limits for suspended solids.

If Moab continues exceeding the state-set limits, and charging some of the lowest sewer and water rates in Utah, the city risks being penalized by losing out on, or being charge higher interest, on government grants and loans.

Two factors have led to the treatment plant’s inability to handle the amount of waste produced by the town. The first has been the rise in popularity of water efficient appliances; the second is been the increasing number of people using the system.

Because many of the businesses, hotels and homes connected to the Moab sewer system are now using low-water fixtures, the waste being pumped into the treatment plant has become more concentrated. And the plant was not built to handle these concentrations of effluent.

“Water conservation is working. Right now the way the system is, it needs a certain amount of water. Without that water it doesn’t work at all,” Andrus said. “Some of the treatment upgrades are to address that changing landscape.”

An ironic consequence of having so many water efficient fixtures attached to the system is that the treatment plant occasionally has to add water to the effluent it receives before the waste can be fully processed.

The water treatment system also relies in part on bacteria to process the waste. Because bacteria are less active in cold weather, large influxes of waste during spring events, like Moab Jeep Safari and the Moab Half Marathon, have grown increasingly difficult for the treatment plant to handle, Foster said.

The city is also looking at long-term alternatives, such as a mulch or a wetlands system to treat the sewage. Both would be more environmentally friendly than the current system and the treatment plant is ideally positioned to use the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve.

However, the current rules governing the wetlands do not make this feasible.

“If the wetlands could be used for treatment that would be fantastic,” Andrus said. “But as it is now we would have to treat it before we could send it to the wetlands and that treatment was about $20 million more than it costs to treat it now.”

The improvements to the treatment plant system that the city plans to install will cost around $7 million and be put in over the next five years. It is expected to allow the city to handle the area’s waste for the next 20 years.

Residents and businesses outside of Moab in Grand County will also see their rates increase, if they are connected to the city’s sewage system.

“All of Grand County’s sewer system flows into us. It’s a regional plant, not just for Moab City, but for the whole region,” Andrus said. “They would set their own (rate) raises, but we would increase the fee they (the county) are paying us so they would deal with it however they want with their users.”

San Juan County is also looking at connecting some properties at the end of Spanish Valley to the sewer system, but that is unlikely to happen for at least several years, Foster said.

“They have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Foster said that, given the scale of these projects that the public works department will have to begin in the coming years, it is unlikely this will be the last raise in rates.

“I think it will have to increase more in the future to get where we need to be and cover our costs,” he said. “We will try to keep it (the rate increases) at round 5-percent a year.”