Moab City Wastewater Treatment Plant Lead Operator Greg Fosse pointed to a biological trickling filter that uses bacteria to treat sewage. The city's six-month moratorium on new sewer connections for commercial projects is about to expire. [Moab Sun News file photo]

Thanks to interim wastewater treatment measures – and milder than average winter temperatures – the City of Moab’s six-month moratorium on new sewer connections for commercial developments is about to expire.

The Moab City Council declined to renew the moratorium during its regular meeting on Tuesday, April 25, and Moab City Manager David Everitt said the ban will now disappear within the next two weeks.

A majority of council members voted last November to impose the moratorium, following periodic violations of state and federal water quality standards at the city’s aging wastewater treatment plant. However, based on the plant’s current performance, Everitt and other city officials suggested that a continuation of the moratorium is no longer necessary.

The next 18 months or so will be the plant’s last: The city previously awarded a $14 million contract to Salt Lake City-based Alder Construction to build a new regional treatment facility on nearby property, and Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said that construction work will now get under way on Monday, May 1.

As the existing plant continues to run over the short term, Everitt said the interim measures that Moab City Wastewater Treatment Plant Lead Operator Greg Fosse and his team adopted have improved its operations.

“As it stands now, we’ve been able to keep things moving mechanically very well,” he said.

Among other things, the plant is using a coagulant called ferric chloride to clump tiny materials together, making it easier to remove them from the wastewater.

“It’s all been very positive so far,” Everitt said. “It certainly does not obviate the need for a new one; this is definitely us squeaking through the year, and the next year still, but I think at this point, we are able to manage the expected additional inputs (of sewage) we are looking at over the next few seasons.”

In the weeks leading up to the council’s split November 2016 vote to approve the moratorium, city officials heard from developers and others who voiced fears that their projects would grind to a halt if it was implemented.

Part-time county resident Rolf Kappeli, who is building a duplex with his wife, was among those who raised concerns last fall. While developers of several major projects squeaked past the moratorium, Kappeli said he and his wife had not submitted their final plans at the time, so they faced an uncertain future.

Needless to say, Kappeli said he’s happy to hear that the moratorium on new connections is about to expire.

“We’re elated because we used all of our personal funds just to get this project started,” he told the Moab Sun News.

When the council first adopted the moratorium, Kappeli said the couple were in the middle of selling a portion of the lot that they’re developing, which affected the sale price.

“It caused us a lot of stress,” he said.

They’d also invested thousands of dollars in their plans to build the duplex, so he said there was no going back for them.

“We were so far into this project before the moratorium started that we were at the point of no return,” Kappeli said.

They ultimately pressed ahead with the project, based on the advice they received from council members and others that the moratorium would most likely expire this spring.

“We just kept going forward with the project, praying that it wouldn’t be an issue,” he said.

Moratorium addressed concerns about operational capacity

City officials first floated the idea of a moratorium on new connections in response to a 2016 study from the city’s contracted engineering firm which found that the current treatment plant was operating at or near capacity.

It may seem counterintuitive, but many of the impacts to the treatment plant have been felt not during the height of the visitor season, but during the off-season: In the past, the facility’s water-quality violations have been most likely to occur during the slower winter months – a time when cooler temperatures can inhibit bacterial activity inside the facility’s biological trickling filters.

Utah Division of Water Quality environmental engineer Dan Griffin said that above-average temperatures during this past winter kept the biological process running more smoothly than usual.

“This winter wasn’t as cold, so the cooling effect didn’t impact it as much,” Griffin told the Moab Sun News.

The city could have faced potential fines of $10,000 per day for each water-quality violation that occurred, but Griffin said that state regulators cut the city some slack because officials readily jumped on board plans to build a new treatment facility.

“It was determined at that time that any fines would have taken away from whatever they would do,” he said. “… If they hadn’t acted as quickly as they did, we would have issued a notice of violation.”

According to Griffin, the city reported just one violation in the last six months, which occurred when the city was repairing its sewer outfall pipe. The pipe ultimately discharges effluent, or treated wastewater, into the Colorado River.

“It wasn’t a huge violation, but we did technically go over our limit that one time,” Everitt told the council. “That’s a better record than we’ve seen in many years, frankly, for a spring so far at that treatment plant.”

In the past, the treatment plant has been deluged during the busy season with septage, or highly concentrated human waste, from porta-potties and vault toilets on surrounding public lands.

That septage accounted for just over 13 percent of all waste that the facility previously processed before it discharged treated effluent into the river. But city officials say that waste has been among the hardest to treat, leading them to bar major haulers from disposing of their septage at the existing facility.

As long as that plant is still operational, Everitt said that the city has no plans to process it.

“We would continue (not to) accept the large septage inputs from public lands, for sure, and continue with the interim measures we’ve been working on,” he said.

Moab City Public Works Director Patrick Dean said the septage ban is one of several factors that accounted for a markedly improved performance at the plant.

“This spring … has been the best spring we’ve ever had there,” Dean said. “I think a lot of it has to do with (the ban on) septage, and also with the treatments that we’ve been doing.”

Council declines to renew moratorium; construction of new plant to begin May 1

This spring … has been the best spring we’ve ever had (at the wastewater treatment plant) … I think a lot of it has to do with (the ban on) septage, and also with the treatments that we’ve been doing.