Mary McGann (standing) delivered a presentation on April 24 at the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee. Representatives with the U.S. Department of Energy (seated, right) attended the meeting and listened to McGann’s presentation. [Photo by Ashley Bunton / Moab Sun News]

Looking downriver from the UMTRA site’s water intake on the Colorado River on April 25, Lee Shenton can see rock, sand and “muck.”

The Colorado River flow was 2,100 cubic feet per second that day; the average for this time of year is about 8,000 cubic feet per second, Shenton said.

“If the river level goes down another four inches, they wont be able to pull water in from the river through the permanent intake at the UMTRA site,” Shenton said.

The Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project is an ongoing U.S. Department of Energy cleanup to remove millions of tons of uranium mill tailings. The UMTRA site is located along the Colorado River adjacent to SR 279 and U.S. Hwy. 191.

To control uranium contamination and prevent it from impacting ground and river water, a permanent pump takes in Colorado River water to create a “curtain of fresh water” as a barrier to protect the river from uranium contamination.

The issue with a slow river flow is physically getting the water out of the Colorado River, said Shenton.

“The UMTRA Project is allowed, if necessary, to use a temporary pump that they put out into the river for their project,” Shenton said.

He explained that using the temporary pumps to supply the curtain of fresh water will keep the Colorado River protected when the permanent pumps can’t be used, but said the temporary pumps are not a long-term solutions and are costly to operate. If the temporary pumps mechanically fail, Shenton said the Colorado River will still be protected by a second configuration of deep wells at the site that catch and hold contaminated water from the pile.

Shenton said river records have been kept since the 1800s, and called the river’s low level “dramatic.” For comparison, Shenton said the river’s all-time low was 558 cubic feet per second in 1934; its recent highest level, in 2011, was 49,000 cubic feet per second.

The river levels are dependent upon snow melt from the Rocky Mountains and the volume of water taken out of the river upstream for irrigation. Irrigation water may increase due to the current drought underway, and this year, Shenton said there has been less snow in the mountains.

Shenton is the UMTRA Project’s community liaison. He, along with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 11 local stakeholders, and various members of the public, met at the Grand County Library on April 24 for the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee meeting.

Mary McGann, the steering committee’s chair, delivered a presentation on the committee’s recent efforts to secure an additional $2.9 million in funding from the federal government to assist with the cleanup efforts.

McGann asked the existing Site Future Subcommittee to update the future vision plan for the UMTRA site, to be prepared for presentation at the committee’s upcoming July meeting.

McGann said the July meeting will be Shenton’s last day as the UMTRA community liaison. Shenton is retiring.

“Officially that will be my final day,” Shenton told the committee. “This is very important to me, it has been for almost nine years. I will be happy to work with you as a citizen after that, and hopefully we will have somebody to replace me in the position before that so that there is transition time.”

Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine said the department would appreciate if the community can spread the word about the need for someone to fill Shenton’s position.

McGann said the committee is being updated to include all of the possible stakeholders in the project.

Shenton said that having 11 stakeholders present at the April 24 meeting was “unusual” and nearly double the seven or eight who have attended past meetings.

Jason Johnson and Tony Manueso, area representatives from the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands, attended the meeting as stakeholders in the project.

“Do you want to be on the committee?” McGann asked.

They said that they did; as did stakeholders from the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the City of Moab.

A final decision was not made on the county stakeholders who will be working with the committee.

“We’ll make sure that somebody from the county is at your first meeting,” McGann said.

Temporary pumps may be called into service