Wastewater treatment isn’t the sexiest of issues, but it is an essential one.

As more and more visitors come to Moab, the city’s decades-old wastewater treatment facility is feeling the strain from all those draining showers and flushing toilets. State regulators say the overtaxed system occasionally violates treatment standards, and they note the situation is serious enough that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is keeping an eye on things.

A new facilities master plan from Bowen Collins & Associates found that the city could solve those violations in the short term by making improvements to its existing facility on 400 North. But those limited steps would not prepare the city for future growth, according to the plan.

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison is eager to build a city-owned and operated facility that would serve not only Moab residents and visitors, but people in Spanish Valley and far northern San Juan County, as well.

“This train has got to leave the station,” Sakrison said March 13. “We’re under the gun … We’ve got to get it started.”

As he envisions it, the City of Moab would shoulder much of the financial burden to build the facility, which could cost more than $7 million to complete, according to past studies.

“We’re not building it to make money,” Sakrison said. “We’re not trying to get rich on this.”

Fortunately for the city and its ratepayers, low-interest loans and grant funds are available, according to John Mackey, who heads the Utah Division of Water Quality’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program.

Mackey’s agency believes that it’s cheaper and more efficient to build one facility that serves more than one utility, instead of building three or four separate treatment plants.

Before the city goes any further with that concept, however, GWSSA General Manager Mark Sovine wants to consult his agency’s 12 board members – each of whom may have differing opinions on the issue.

At this early stage in the planning process, Sovine identified three issues of potential concern to his board, including plant capacity, fairness and equitable rates. Sovine said he also wants to know how the city could serve as the sole treatment plant owner, while still providing the GWSSA with the things it needs.

“We’re going to need the city to come to us with a plan,” he said.

The costs of doing nothing at all could add up in a hurry. By some estimates, the state could fine the city up to $10,000 per day as long as any violations continue.

However, if city officials show that they’re taking the issue seriously, Utah Division of Water Quality environmental engineer Dan Griffin suggested that it would be counterproductive to penalize them for any violations that may pop up in the interim.

“If we’ve determined that they can maintain a good pace to fix the problem … fines won’t be necessary, because all that does is take money out of the ratepayers’ hands that would go toward building this facility,” Griffin said March 17.

The city built a primary treatment plant in the late 1950s. In 1967, it added a secondary treatment process that relies partially on micro-organisms inside slimy material to eat organic matter in the waste. Additional upgrades followed, but 19 years have passed since the city last expanded the facility, which discharges treated wastewater into the Colorado River.

Bowen Collins chief engineer Bob Mayers told city officials and others that the wastewater treatment process was great for its time.

“It’s doing what it was designed to do,” Mayers said March 13. “It just can’t handle the increased load.”

“They’ve been doing better,” Griffin said. “But everyone just agrees that it’s reached its age limit.”

Oddly enough, the Bowen Collins plan found that flow levels over the last 12 years have been fairly stagnant, at an annual average of about 1 million gallons a day. Yet wastewater concentrations have steadily increased – most likely because water-conserving toilets and fixtures at area motels have become much more efficient, according to Bowen Collins project manager Jeff Beckman.

Griffin said the current process may not be able to handle growing demands.

“Some of the systems are really old, and may have started to reach the end of their lifespans,” he said.

Increasingly, he said, his agency has recorded periodic violations at the plant – most recently, during the last quarter of 2014.

“It’s been getting steadily harder for them to maintain compliance,” Griffin said.

About a quarter of the current flow is coming from the GWSSA’s customers, but the facilities master plan predicts that growth within the agency’s service area and northern San Juan County will increase by 2 percent per year. Growth within the city limits is expected to move forward at about 1.1 percent annually.

Looking 20 years into the future, the plan estimates that the facility will need to handle an average of 1.5 million gallons per day. According to Beckman, that system would be designed to treat an additional 250,000 gallons over a peak 30-day period of high visitation and use.

Whatever path the city, GWSSA and others decide to take moving forward, Beckman wants in on their discussions.

“Ever since my kids found out that I worked with sewer treatment plants, they stopped asking me to go to career day at the elementary school,” he said. “So I’m always glad when I can find an audience to talk about sewer treatment.”

State reports growing number of violations at current facility

This train has got to leave the station. We’re under the gun … We’ve got to get it started.