Pipe dreams and subterranean realities in Spanish Valley…

Lately, I’ve been in a mood to think about water. Recent monsoons have been a blessing – for the vegetation, our fire danger, my mood – but we are still in a precarious position in relationship to moisture. We are still immersed in this drought.

A trip to Ken’s Lake is a reminder of this. On most days, Faux Falls is dry. Mill Creek’s flows are too low to siphon through the Sheley Tunnel. The diversion’s resulting reservoir is now stagnant – algal, mucky, rank. Hundreds – if not thousands – of dead fish line the muddy shores, much to the delight of welfare-seeking ravens, vultures and herons. Many who own Ken’s Lake water rights have exceeded this year’s fractional allotment and are now watching their fields wither.

When the reservoir was planned, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. But here in the West, our water schemes are matched in scope only by our droughts. And we will someday pay the price for that dry margin between our reservoirs and reality.

With this in mind, I was appalled – but not surprised – to learn of San Juan County’s present water-grab proposal. Last April, the San Juan Spanish Valley Special Service District – an entity created to bring water to planned developments in the upper valley – applied for a change in its given water rights. The agency currently has approval to use water stored in a proposed reservoir on the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. This right was granted in 1967. The dam was never built. Now, for the sake of convenience, the agency would like to change its “point of diversion” from the San Juan River to the aquifers underlying Spanish Valley (which assumes a connection between the two sources of water – something that’s never been proven). And it would like 5,000 acre-feet a year, please.

For a change application to be granted, the claimant must demonstrate that there is water available, existing water rights will not be impaired nor public welfare impacted, and the plan must be economically feasible and not speculative.

This project fails on all counts.

There have been no reliable studies on safe yields from the aquifers on which we rely. The water San Juan County wants – the equivalent of 1.6 trillion gallons a year – may not be sustainable… or even present at all.

Currently, the city of Moab and Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency (GWSSA) have a combined use around 3,200 acre feet of drinking-quality groundwater per year. GWSSA applied for more but won’t be granted the additional rights until it can demonstrate a need for them.

Right now, the San Juan service area is home to less than 500 people, putting water use at about 335 acre-feet a year. The district would have to cultivate a population of 7,500 people or more before all water rights would be put to use. The desire for so much water seems to be based solely on speculation and not on need.

In order for San Juan to afford the water project’s necessary infrastructure, the district’s population would have to expand exponentially. The plan entails drilling 23 wells and constructing several covered storage reservoirs. The district’s contingency plan, if the aquifers become depleted and begin affecting Moab’s water sources, is to stick a straw in the Colorado – their marker is at the Matheson Wetland Preserve, no less – and pump water uphill to Spanish Valley after cleaning and settling it.

This is all an expensive proposition, and as the agency admits, “The District has limited funding available at this time.” San Juan County would rely heavily on taxes and impact fees to fund this project. And with less than 500 current residents, the district’s revenue stream is a trickle. However, the agency does not see this as a problem. It writes, “Although the real estate market is down at this time, it is believed that by the time the initial sources of water are developed and the water distribution system constructed, the market will be substantially improved.”

However, therein lies another problem with this plan. The service district is reliant upon full build-out to fund the project, but full build-out would contaminate the underlying aquifer. According to a report by the Utah Geological Survey, only one septic system per 10 to 20 acres is allowable in Spanish Valley before groundwater is affected. Thus, San Juan County would have to construct an expensive sewage treatment plant or pay for upgrades to Moab’s facility and tie into that.

And where would this money come from? The service district gives no details, but we are assured that, “[T]he approach that the board is taking is a conservative and prudent one that will insure success and financial stability.”

Such platitudes do not guarantee that our aquifers will remain productive or uncontaminated under the strain of this project. Platitudes will not keep Mill Creek running as ground water is depleted. Platitudes provide no assurance that growth for the sake of growth – the ideology of the cancer cell, as Ed Abbey once wrote – will not act as a disease in this arid valley, eventually making it uninhabitable.

A hearing on this matter will be held Aug. 8 at the Grand County Council Chambers at 9 a.m. This is a follow-up to a May hearing that covered so many concerns, it lasted over four hours. Among those protesting the plan are the city of Moab, Grand Water and Sewer, Bureau of Land Management, Division of Wildlife Resources and numerous individuals and nonprofit groups. Grand County has remained noticeably silent on the issue, though its residents stand to be most affected. The best we can do now is demand that Grand County become involved, follow the city’s lead, and take a stand on an issue whose range of impacts is just as uncertain as the aquifers on which we rely.

Someday, our unbounded water optimism will meet the heavy-handed limits of reality. Someday, we will wonder how we ever took water for granted.

ByBy Jen Jackson