Future development in the San Juan County portion of Spanish Valley received a boost earlier this month through state awarded funding for an independent culinary water system. The San Juan Spanish Valley Special Service District received a combined million in grants and loans from Utah's Community Impact Board and the Drinking Water Board. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

Future water development in Spanish Valley received a boost earlier this month, when two state boards awarded funds to develop an independent culinary water system in an unincorporated area of San Juan County 5 miles south of Moab.

The Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB), and the Utah Drinking Water Board awarded the San Juan Spanish Valley Special Service District (SJSVSSD) a combined $5 million in grants and loans to develop a well, distribution lines and a 500,000-gallon storage tank.

The planned system will be designed to accommodate the area’s 575 current residents and account for a projected population growth of 2 percent a year over the next 20 years – or an additional 279 residents.

“Our goal is to provide services that improve the quality of life in the Spanish Valley area,” San Juan County Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Pehrson said. “As growth occurs in the valley, we are hopeful to minimize the need for a higher concentration of private and often unregulated wells and septic systems.”

Pehrson said that in addition to developing a culinary water system, San Juan County also plans to develop a sewer collection system that would tie into sewer lines that the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency (GWSSA) manages, with wastewater to be treated in Moab.

Impact fees for residents to hook up to the new water and sewer system are expected to be between $2,000 to $3,000, Pehrson said.

“Once the funding commitments have been obtained from the different funding agencies, we will hold a series of public hearings and open houses to inform the residents and potential land developers in the area of our plans,” Pehrson said.

San Juan County residents in Spanish Valley currently rely on individual wells for their water supplies, and septic systems for waste, which has raised concerns about the potential contamination of the Glen Canyon Aquifer, Moab’s primary source of culinary water.

Moab City Council member Kyle Bailey said that a plume of nitrogen, possibly from septic systems, has been detected underground at the south end of the valley and that it makes sense for San Juan County to tie into Moab’s sewer plant.

“The state has said they would like one plant for the valley,” he said.

Bailey said that San Juan County would be responsible for pretreatment of sewage in the same way that Grand County is, prior to delivery at the Moab plant. That requirement is currently a sticking point between Moab City and the Spanish Valley Water and Sewer Service Improvement District Board in Grand County.

On the subject of water development, Bailey said there won’t be any immediately noticeable effects on Moab’s water supply but that ultimately it depends on how much development occurs.

“There’s 5,000 acres of (School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration) land out there that they plan to develop and it will eventually have a very big impact,” Bailey said.

The road to water development on the San Juan County end of Spanish Valley has been long and marked by opposition over questions of availability and impacts to neighboring wells.

SJSVSSD first applied to the Utah Division of Water Rights in 2007 to appropriate 5,000 acre-feet of water on rights obtained in 1967. One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons of water. The average home in Moab and Spanish Valley uses approximately 185,000 gallons of water per year.

The original application called for surface water diversions from the San Juan River to be stored in a reservoir in southern San Juan County. In 2011, SJSVSSD filed a permanent change application that would transfer the 5,000 acre-feet appropriation from the San Juan River to wells in northern San Juan County in Spanish Valley.

Protests to the transfer were filed by the City of Moab, the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources over concerns of insufficient water availability.

Private citizens, and conservation groups such as the Canyonlands Watershed Council and Living Rivers, also protested.

“San Juan County, and Grand County for that matter, are grabbing water that does not exist because nature has limits and the Colorado River basin reached that limit about 13 years ago,” Living Rivers Conservation Director John Weisheit said.

Weisheit cited the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study from 2012 that said the gap between supply and demand is going to widen and that it will be expensive to narrow the gap.

“So the question for the water managers of southeastern Utah is, ‘Are you going to widen the gap, or narrow the gap?’” Weisheit said. “Either decision is going to place a burden on southeast Utah taxpayers, and obviously a decision to widen the gap places the bigger burden on water providers and consumers, and puts us all in a category of greater risk and uncertainty.”

In August 2013, the Utah Division of Water Rights granted SJSVSSD an appropriation of 500 acre-feet annually out of the 5,000 acre-feet it requested.

Utah Division of Water Rights Southeastern Regional Engineer Marc Stilson said that SJSVSSD would be allowed to incrementally increase its appropriation following a set of conditions that include a groundwater monitoring plan.

Stilson said that no more than 1,000 acre-feet would be appropriated before the completion of a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study currently being performed to determine recharge rates for aquifers in Moab and Spanish Valley.

“The USGS study will provide a much better estimate of the groundwater resources located in Moab (and) Spanish Valley than what we have had in the past and will guide us in the development of a groundwater management plan for the valley,” Stilson said.

Previous studies have estimated a recharge rate for the Glen Canyon Aquifer to be between 12,000 and 14,000 acre-feet per year.

Grand County Council member Chris Baird said that on paper, water in Moab and Spanish Valley is already overallocated at around 20,000 acre-feet per year, but that only about 6,000 acre-feet are actually being withdrawn.

“We’re about halfway to maximum withdrawal,” Baird said.

Baird said he isn’t too concerned with a 500 acre-feet allocation for San Juan County but that “5,000 acre-feet seems like way too much.”

Bailey concurred.

“This is something we all need to pay attention to,” Bailey said. “If you’re a rational thinking person and you look at climate change – no snowpack below 6,000 feet by 2020, no snowpack at all by 2100 because it all falls as rain. It’s more challenging than people want to think. We’re in a water crisis.”

Questions of adequate supply in Spanish Valley still loom

Our goal is to provide services that improve the quality of life in the Spanish Valley area. As growth occurs in the valley we are hopeful to minimize the need for a higher concentration of private and often unregulated wells and septic systems.