Moab City Wastewater Treatment Plant Lead Operator Greg Fosse, foreground, told the Moab City Council that more analysis is needed to determine whether interim treatment options can increase the capacity at the existing sewer treatment plant. Moab City Council members Heila Ershadi, left, and Rani Derasary, are also pictured with Interim City Manager David Everitt and Moab City Attorney Chris McAnany. [Photo by Lara Gale / Moab Sun News]

Moab’s wastewater treatment plant is operating on the verge of noncompliance with the Utah Clean Water Act, and the Moab City Council voted 3-2 this week to impose a moratorium on new sewer connections until it’s guaranteed that the facility is operating within the law.

Volume of sewage isn’t the reason for plant failure when it happens, Moab City Wastewater Treatment Plant Lead Operator Greg Fosse told the council and a full room of concerned citizens at the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Periodically, the plant dumps treated effluent into the Colorado River containing higher levels of certain damaging pollutants than allowed under Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) limits, Fosse said. Currently, the plant’s effluence is within those limits, and instances of noncompliance have been caused by problems with treatment, not the volume of waste, he said.

Alternative means of bringing the current plant into compliance were not given enough consideration, Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi said in a statement opposing the ordinance.

“The human costs of a moratorium haven’t been considered,” she said, explaining that she has explored the potential effects of a moratorium since 2014, and learned that limiting development is an extreme measure which runs a high risk of negatively impacting employment in the city. “I came to the conclusion that a moratorium is not where we want to go except as an absolute last-ditch solution.”

The city did not fully explore innovative alternative chemical or mechanical treatment options, or the impact of residential solutions like graywater systems and composting toilets, she said.

Although Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison voiced support for the ordinance before the council and public convened for a special meeting last week, he said Tuesday night that he agreed with Ershadi.

“I’ve got confidence in (Fosse),” said Sakrison, applauding the lead operator’s work over the last 14 years. “He has faced major challenges and has it dialed in right now. Within six months, we’re either going to have it working, or then you can enact your moratorium.”

Citing a letter from the Utah DEQ, Moab City Council member Kalen Jones countered that the state agency could fine the city for its periods of noncompliance, and doesn’t do so only because the city has demonstrated a good-faith effort to address the problem as quickly as possible.

“One thing I come back to again and again is that we have a high level of uncertainty of what the future of our treatment plant holds,” Jones said. “Not passing this moratorium is predicated on best-case scenarios.”

Council member Rani Derasari agreed.

“We can’t give people a false sense of capacity I’m not sure is there,” she said.

She added that while she is aware the moratorium will negatively impact some members of the community, the duty of the city council is to uphold the Utah State Constitution.

“Our job sitting up here is to make difficult decisions,” she said. “Believe me, I think everyone sitting here has weighed the pros and cons.”

In response to public concern voiced at last month’s meeting about the moratorium, the ordinance the council passed exempts “Priority Connections,” which will be granted for projects approved by the city prior to the effective date of the moratorium. Also exempted are any future applications for “Primary Residential Use,” or homes built for people who intend to live in Moab most of the time.

During nearly an hour of intense debate Tuesday, the council considered amendments to the ordinance Jones proposed, which favored exemption of “affordable housing” from the moratorium rather than all primary residences, for a certain period of time. Though the need for affordable housing is cited in the ordinance, the language doesn’t do justice to the enormity of the problem as documented by the Affordable Housing Task Force over the last year, Jones said.

“I adjusted the wording to include that as a priority for hookups,” he explained as council members questioned the reason for his proposed amendment.

Ultimately, the council approved the original language of the ordinance.

Permit applicants desiring a sewer connection under the exemptions from the moratorium will be required to sign an affidavit swearing that they are building a primary residence. Those in violation can be subject to a class B misdemeanor and fines as determined by the court.

Future commercial developments will be denied connections until the new plant is constructed and functioning, Moab City Community Development Director Amy Weiser said.

“I am proud of the city council for making a decision last night and providing some level of certainty to those with projects in the works and to the community,” she told the Moab Sun News. “The most important thing to focus on is installing the interim measures to the existing plant, and getting the new plant constructed. The city will do everything it can to keep things moving forward.”

Many concerned Moab residents gathered around Weiser as they left the council chambers, and she encouraged them to discuss their project information with city officials to determine how the ordinance affects them.

“My feelings are that an unneeded stop sign as thrown up in an economy that can hardly afford being put on hold,” AW Construction owner and manager Bill Winfield said following the meeting.

Many of the builders and buyers that Byrd & Co. real estate agent Sue Shrewsbury works with are dealing with a primary residence. But she said that the uncertainty caused by this ordinance may still impact them if banks decide new construction loans are too high a risk.

“This council is between the proverbial rock and a hard place,” Shrewsbury said. “It could have been avoided.”

Primary residences, currently permitted projects unaffected by 3-2 vote on moratorium

The most important thing to focus on is installing the interim measures to the existing plant, and getting the new plant constructed. The city will do everything it can to keep things moving forward.