Updated on March 4

Over the past year, needed improvements in Thompson Springs have drawn the attention of county officials: a frightening house fire last winter prompted officials to support the creation of fuel breaks and a town-wide clean-up; planning and zoning staff also undertook to correct inaccurate property maps for the town.

Right now there are only about 40 residents in Thompson Springs, but some see it as a potential site for future housing for Grand County workers. For that to become a reality, however, the town needs to expand its water supply. The water board aims to develop a new spring in the near future; another possible infrastructure/water rights deal could expand the water supply even further in the next 10-15 years.

Thompson currently relies on two springs in Thompson Canyon for its water, which have been declining over the last three decades. A study completed this fall by Sunrise Engineering—an update to the last study, which was completed in 2003—found that the town is 40% short of what the state requires for water supply. It’s not as dire as it sounds—Utah Division of Drinking Water calculations consider a hypothetical maximum allocation for all users, while actual demand doesn’t generally reach that max at any one time.

“We’re not in this scenario where we’re like, ‘Oh no, there’s no more water coming out of the faucet,’” said John Corkery, Thompson Springs resident and chair of the Thompson Special Service Water District Board. However, the study illustrates a need to secure more water sources for the town.

In recent years developers have begun to show interest in Thompson Springs as a potential bedroom community for Moab workers, but right now no development requiring new water connections can take place in Thompson Springs.

At its Feb. 1 meeting, the county commission approved a six-month moratorium on building in Thompson, which can be terminated early if source capacity issues are resolved before that, or re-imposed after six months if there is still a deficit at that time. However, the moratorium is only another move supporting regulations that already prohibit new construction in Thompson requiring new water connections: for example, the land use code already requires a developer to confirm the availability of water to get a building permit.

Developing new sources

The TSSWD has submitted an application to the Bureau of Land Management to redevelop an existing spring to provide more water to Thompson. The spring was used to supply the town in the past, but in 1990, it was closed because of concerns about contamination from surface water. If the board’s application is successful, a cutoff wall will be constructed to shield the collection system from surface water intrusion. The development will cost about $334,000. Corkery says the board has likely grant funding lined up.

Corkery took on the Water Board Chair position this summer, stepping up to lead an entirely new board—the former body of volunteer members disbanded this summer under pressure from legal issues related to development and water rights. Corkery owns the Desert Moon Hotel and RV Park located in Thompson Springs, which he said does steady business during the spring and fall. Corkery said he’d like to see Thompson grow into a more vibrant community.

“I’d like to make progress so we can be that affordable housing community for all the amazing people who come to Moab, and work in Moab, and have a hard time being there because it’s so expensive now,” he said.

The new spring, which Corkery hopes will be approved by the end of the year, would help alleviate the town’s deficit, though it would likely not provide enough to keep pace with the town’s growth over the next 20 years, projected in the Sunrise Engineering study to be 0.5%.

There may be an avenue through the Department of Energy’s Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action project. UMTRA Crews have been removing uranium mine tailings from a pile north of town for decades and transporting them to a storage facility near Crescent Junction. When containers are emptied into the storage facility, they’re sprayed down with water piped to the facility from the Green River. Wetting the containers down helps prevent toxic dust from drifting from the storage site. The UMTRA project is expected to be complete in the next 5 to 7 years, and at that point, the water rights from the Green River and the infrastructure piping it to Crescent Junction will have served their purpose. Corkery has raised the idea that the Department of Energy might give those rights and that infrastructure to Thompson when UMTRA is complete.

The idea is still in its infancy. If it did happen, Thompson Springs would still have to find funding to pay for the delivery system to be extended to the town, and for a surface water treatment facility to be built. The price tag would be in the millions, though Corkery said officials from the state have tentatively offered matching funds if the idea were to move forward.

Thompson residents favor the idea, Corkery said, and he brought the suggestion before the county commission at its Feb. 1 meeting to feel out whether members would be supportive of the move. Commissioners were hesitant to weigh in on one side or the other before understanding more about the implications of the concept.

If the project came to fruition, it could potentially support hundreds of new homes in Thompson, which would be a drastic change for the small town. Commissioner Kevin Walker pointed out that such a large project would only make sense if large-scale development was anticipated in Thompson, something he thought should be addressed in the county’s General Plan, rather than approached as a water policy issue.

Corkery and Grand County Strategic Development Director Chris Baird will draft a letter expressing support for a feasibility study of the idea, and the commission will consider the letter at a future meeting.

Corkery emphasized that the water board plans to promote conservation as another measure towards water security in Thompson. That will include adopting a fee structure in which water becomes more expensive above a certain threshold of use—in other words, high water users will pay a higher rate. The board will also encourage residents to install cisterns and remove thirsty lawns in favor of low-water landscaping options.

“With as much excitement as there is about getting more water, there’s equally, if not more, desire to be very conscious about conserving water so we don’t get right back in the same position,” Corkery said.

Follow up on March 4: 

The Thompson Special Service Water District Board is setting the stage to potentially inherit both water rights and delivery infrastructure from the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action project. The UMTRA project has for over a decade been moving tailings from an old uranium mine, deposited next to the Colorado River just north of Moab, to a containment site near Crescent Junction. Once the tailings are emptied into the secure containment site, the shipping containers are sprayed down with water to prevent the dust from traveling. The water comes from the Green River and is delivered to Crescent Junction by a pipeline. 

The tailings removal is expected to be complete within the next several years, and the water board has suggested that the Department of Energy, which runs the UMTRA project, might give its Green River water rights, and the pipeline to Crescent Junction, to Thompson Springs. TSSWD Board Chair John Corkery asked the Grand County Commission to consider supporting such an action at its Feb. 1 meeting. At the Mar. 1 meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a letter of support for the idea, after amending language in the draft submitted by the TSSWD that strongly promoted growth in Thompson Springs. While commissioners said they favor securing the rights and infrastructure, they aren’t ready to commit to large-scale growth in Thompson. However, as Commissioner Trisha Hedin pointed out, if the springs that supply Thompson continue to decline as they have in recent years, the town will need new water sources simply to survive.