By a 4-3 vote on March 21, the board voted that “no action” was the preferred outcome for a project about which many felt that “no action” was not an option.
The March 21 skirmish of the Bluff “Waste Water War” is just the latest in a controversy that has raged in the community for at least four decades.
The “no action” decision came after a public process in which those opposed to a community system were clear and vocal.
The passion surrounding waste water treatment splits the community of Bluff, which sits in a narrow valley on the banks of the San Juan River.
Many of those who oppose a community system express concern about the cost of a system and the growth that it could bring.
Supporters of a community system express concern about public health and a contaminated aquifer.
After a lengthy and involved planning process, two options were considered for a community wastewater treatment program. Both options carried a similar price tag at roughly $5 million and would have cost community members approximately $25 a month per household.
The “small pipe” option would take wastewater that is pretreated in septic tanks before being taken to a treatment plant. This option would have used septic tanks, but not leach fields.
The “large pipe” option would carry all the waste to a centralized treatment facility and eliminate septic tanks entirely.
State officials overseeing the process, including the Southeast Utah Health Department and the Department of Water Quality, tried to indicate that the community needed to select one of the two options and that “no action is no option”.
However, after a lengthy and vocal public process, the board voted “no action”.
David Ariotti, of the Southeast Utah Health Department, indicates that the state will try to develop a plan to honor the wishes of Bluff residents, which is there will be no community wastewater system. “The easiest way to address these problems is through a community system, but the community says no,” said Ariotti.
Ariotti said that moving forward, the existing rules will be followed and added, “The ‘no action’ decision does not mean that we are not going to be proactive in protecting health and the environment in Bluff.”
Ariotti suggested that adding new septic systems in Bluff and maintaining existing systems is likely to become more costly and more complicated.
The health department said that the failure of several on-site systems triggered the issue. Ariotti says the department has completed a number of ground water studies. While they have yet to find a “smoking gun” pinpointing the problem, there is plenty of evidence that there is a wastewater problem in Bluff.
A series of factors contribute to the wastewater challenge, including a shallow aquifer, the size of building lots, and the soil. “These are marginal soils for underground disposal in Bluff,” said Ariotti.
In addition, there are approximately three dozen water wells in the Bluff area and many are close to septic drainfields. Laws require that wells are to be 200 feet from septic systems, but a number of wells in Bluff are closer than that to drainfields.
The factors contribute to a large number of system failures in Bluff. Arriotti reports that an average year sees more system failures in Bluff than in the rest of San Juan County combined. “We need to take steps to preserve the shallow aquifer in Bluff,” said Ariotti.
Ariotti reports that at the current time, the wastewater system of the Recapture Lodge motel and laundry is under a notice of violation that occurred several months ago.
Ariotti reports that in 1996, Recapture Lodge built a package wastewater treatment plant which is not permitted and added that “improper operation of the package treatment plant contributed to the failure of the onsite system.”