Moab City Wastewater Treatment Plant Lead Operator Greg Fosse points to a biological trickling filter that uses bacteria to treat sewage. City officials say the antiquated system is not designed to handle the growing loads from more and more visitors, hence the need for a new wastewater treatment plant. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

After months of back-and-forth discussions, the City of Moab and a Spanish Valley sewer district are trying to iron out their remaining differences over a draft agreement to build a new wastewater treatment facility.

Yet while sewer district representatives voiced confidence that they can resolve the issues in the near future, city officials who want to keep the $11 million project on schedule caution that their patience is wearing thin.

“We are rapidly running out of time, and I don’t want to underemphasize that,” Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson told the city council during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 9.

Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency (GWSSA) General Manager Mark Sovine said the key sticking points from his side involve the pre-treatment of wastewater his district would pipe to the new plant, as well as the terms for its customers’ portion of the plant.

“Other than those two items, we feel like it’s a pretty good deal,” he said.

But Moab City Council member Kyle Bailey, who serves as a GWSSA trustee, said he believes that the proposed agreement has gone “way off course,” due to the involvement of some Spanish Valley sewer board members.

“It was a completely gutted version of the draft that we (recently) got,” Bailey said.

The city-owned regional treatment plant will replace the current facility near the Matheson Wetlands, just across the road from the future site on 400 North and Stewart Lane. Davidson has said that she hopes to have the new plant up and running by mid-2018.

The city built the existing plant in the 1950s, and last upgraded it in the 1990s. Today, it’s increasingly feeling the strain of growing visitor numbers, as developers build more hotels and more restaurants open. At the same time, public land management agencies and private haulers are bringing more highly concentrated waste to the facility for treatment.

The plant discharges treated wastewater into the Colorado River, and while it’s currently in compliance with its state permit, any violations of water quality standards could cost the city up to $10,000 per day.

Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi noted that the facility has not violated those standards since March – a time when cooler temperatures can inhibit bacterial activity inside the facility’s biological trickling filter.

But as temperatures drop again this winter, the potential for water-quality violations could resurface, and the violations could remain a problem as long as the current plant is operating – especially as visitor numbers continue to rise.

“If we’re not under construction by June of next year, I’ll be very concerned,” Davidson said.

“We will reach a real end of having capacity at the plant some time here,” she added. “It’s (the near future that) I’m worried about … There’s real consequences to saying, ‘We need a new plant, and we need that plant right now.’”

The agreement with the Spanish Valley Water and Sewer Improvement District was supposed to be in place by July 15, Davidson said. Until recently, she said, she was confident enough that all sides had reached an understanding that she hoped to present the document to the city council at its Aug. 9 meeting.

“I frankly thought we had it,” Davidson said. “I had it on the draft agenda for this week – that’s how close we were, I thought. So we have taken a turn. I’m not happy that we took the turn, but it is where we’re at.”

Sovine said there will always be disagreements any time that two parties are dealing with a proposal this large, and with so much money involved. But he said he believes that the two sides will take care of their differences.

However, city officials worry that any quick resolution could be complicated by the fact that Sovine is scheduled to retire in early September. With less than a month to go now before he leaves, the agency still hasn’t found anyone to fill his position.

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison and others said they believe that Sovine is taking the issue seriously, although Davidson said she is concerned about what will happen if the two sides don’t resolve their differences by the time that Sovine leaves.

“My worry is who’s going to take up the charge if he’s not here,” she said.

Sovine said he’s committed to working out an agreement that the Spanish Valley board can approve, and that’s why he continues to meet regularly with Davidson and others.

“It’s my hope and my expectation that it will be done before my retirement,” he said.

Ershadi said she believes that if residents became aware of the situation, they would encourage the Spanish Valley board members to act quickly.

“I feel like if the public knew how these negotiations were going, there would be pressure on the district to come to an understanding that’s reasonable,” she said.

Spanish Valley Water and Sewer Improvement District Board chair Gary Wilson said his board is committed to doing just that.

“We intend to work through the issues and get a sewer plant built,” Wilson said.

GWSSA optimistic about quick resolution, but Davidson says time is running out

We are rapidly running out of time, and I don’t want to underemphasize that.