City-commissioned surveyors haven't found a single yellow-billed cuckoo on the site of the future treatment plant near the corner of 400 North and Stewart Lane. But regulators want to ensure that construction work on the new facility won't disturb any potential nesting habitat there. [Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]

The City of Moab may have found a short-term solution to increase capacity at its aging wastewater treatment plant. But the question of whether the city should impose a partial moratorium on new sewer connections until a new treatment facility is in place remained unanswered this week.

Moab City Council members tabled consideration of a Nov. 1 proposal to approve a temporary moratorium on new commercial and secondary residential construction, giving them more time to review public feedback about the idea.

While they initially voted 4-1 to “indefinitely” table the proposal, council members later voted unanimously to revisit the idea at their next regular meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

The council’s discussion drew an overflow crowd that filled both rooms at the council chambers and spilled out into the hallway at the Moab City Center, as contractors, developers, Realtors and others made their presence felt.

In response to concerns that city officials heard in the days leading up to the meeting, Moab City Community Services Director Amy Weiser said that city officials worked to minimize the proposal’s impacts on residents and the local economy.

In its current form, for instance, the proposal would not affect local homeowners’ plans to build primary year-round residences, nor would it apply to apartment complexes that are built for full-time local residents. City officials have also suggested that developers who obtained county building permits by Friday, Oct. 21, would be exempt from the proposal.

“We have a large number of exceptions that take as many people as possible into account,” Weiser said during a special council workshop on Monday, Oct. 31.

Moab City Attorney Chris McAnany reiterated the following night that the moratorium, if approved, would not affect primary residential construction projects.

“That’s not second homes; it’s not overnight rentals – it’s primary residential dwellings,” McAnany said.

With or without those exceptions, though, Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi said she doesn’t want to pursue the moratorium unless city officials know for sure that it’s the only remaining option that’s available to them.

“This room is packed because people are concerned, and understandably so,” Ershadi said during the council’s Nov. 1 meeting. “So I want to be sure that we’ve done everything we can to avoid what I see as a really last-ditch option.”

Moab City Council member Kalen Jones, an architect and developer who could be affected by the proposal, said he disclosed his interests to the city attorney. McAnany told him that he does need to declare those interests, but as long as he does so – and believes that he can act in the city’s interests – Jones feels comfortable in joining the council’s discussion next week.

“I’m interested in getting it back on the agenda,” he told the Moab Sun News.

Limits on septage could increase capacity at current plant

City officials first floated the idea of a moratorium on new connections in response to a recent study from the city’s contracted engineering firm which found that the current treatment plant is operating at or near capacity.

The plant, which was built in the 1950s and last upgraded in the 1990s, is feeling the strains of increased visitation, as more and more visitors come to Moab.

It discharges treated effluent into the Colorado River, and in the last three years or so, city officials say it has increasingly exceeded limits on the release of pollutants such as total suspended solids (TSS).

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said he believes that the city has a “moral” obligation to reduce those violations.

“We’re under more scrutiny than we have been in the past,” Sakrison said. “… And in the past three years, we have violated our permit on a pretty regular basis.”

In the short term, the city aims to reduce the growing pressures on the current facility by limiting the amount of septage that it accepts. Septage is highly concentrated human waste that typically comes from porta-potties and backcountry vault toilets that dot campgrounds and trailheads on public lands surrounding Moab.

According to Moab City Engineer Philip Bowman, septage currently accounts for just over 13 percent of all waste that the facility processes before it discharges treated effluent into the river. But that waste is among the hardest to treat, and if it can be diverted elsewhere, city officials and others are hopeful that they can boost existing treatment capacity until the new plant is in place – hopefully by mid-2018.

“That would definitely buy us some capacity,” Sakrison said.

As it is, Sakrison said, major shipments of septage to the plant are winding down as the 2016 visitor season draws to a close. According to the mayor, the National Park Service will not haul any septage during the slower winter months, and the first load of 2017 probably won’t arrive until next March.

Council hears from local residents

County resident Bill Love was the lone resident to speak out in support of the proposal.

“The effort to kill the moratorium by tabling the resolution is very disturbing,” Love told the Moab Sun News. “The problem with the sewer capacity of the plant has been known for many years. (The Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency) placed a moratorium on sewer connections around approximately 2007 and looked at developing a new plant. Moab City would not participate and the moratorium was removed.”

Since city officials addressed many of the concerns that developers and Realtors previously brought to their attention, the council’s Nov. 1 discussion drew more questions than comments from other audience members.

Developer Rolf Kappeli said he’s already invested a significant amount of time and money in his residential construction project, and he urged the council to consider the impacts that a broad moratorium could have on his plans.

“I’m in it heavily, and it would hurt bad if I couldn’t proceed further thus far into the project,” Kappeli said.

McAnany said he’s sensitive to those concerns.

It’s inevitable that some projects would grind to a halt under a moratorium, McAnany said, but it would be “unreasonable” to deny connections to projects that are far enough along in the permitting process.

Developer Gary Blackburn, who is planning to build 20 single-family homes in unincorporated Spanish Valley near the Moab Golf Club, sought assurances that the city will be able to build the new plant within the projected timeframe.

“Those of us that are developers will be going way out on a financial limb under the assumption that we will have something in two years,” he said. “Can anyone provide a confidence level for two years? If it really is three or four or five (years), a bunch of us are going to go bust.”

Sakrison said the city will offer its chosen contractor financial incentives to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, with the hope that it can make up for lost time.

“We’ve had some setbacks, to be honest with you,” the mayor said. “We’re on a tight, tight timeframe … we’re under the gun, so we’re going to do anything and everything we possibly can to get this thing done in a timely fashion, and I’m hoping for sooner than 18 months, for sure.”

Ironically enough, state regulators are at least somewhat to blame for those setbacks, he said, since they’ve taken longer than usual to process the city’s paperwork.

“They’ve been part of the problem,” he said.

Likewise, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may have inadvertently contributed to the delays by calling the city’s attention to the plight of the yellow-billed cuckoo, which is listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

City-commissioned surveyors haven’t found a single yellow-billed cuckoo on the site of the future treatment plant near the corner of 400 North and Stewart Lane, Sakrison said. But federal regulators want to ensure that construction work on the new facility won’t disturb any potential nesting habitat.

If the city and its contractors aren’t able to clear the property and begin site preparation by the end of this year, they’ll have to hold off until the 2017 nesting season ends next September, Sakrison said.

City hopes that interim steps can increase treatment plant capacity

This room is packed because people are concerned, and understandably so … So I want to be sure that we’ve done everything we can to avoid what I see as a really last-ditch option.