October 2009

More septic concerns in the tiny town of Bluff, Utah

By David Grant Long

No doubt the disposition of human waste has been a problem since people first started living together in groups.

And while the dilemma has not been quite that protracted in Bluff, Utah, it sometimes seems so. For several decades, at least, residents and business people in the tiny town perched on the northern bank of the San Juan River have wrestled with treating their sewage in a safe yet affordable way, teetering on the edge of creating a public-health danger by relying solely on septic tanks and low-tech lagoons to process their waste even while some people have called for more modern and efficient methods.

Last month, the Recapture Lodge, a hotel that is one of Bluff's largest businesses, was issued a notice of violation by the Utah Division of Water Quality for reported failures of its waste-disposal systems and the unauthorized discharge of wastewater and sludge into an unapproved lagoon system.

The development would appear to give weight to the arguments of those who say the town needs some sort of centralized sewage-treatment system. But efforts to come to an agreement on a community system appear to be in limbo at the moment.

According to a Sept. 10 letter to Recapture Lodge owner Jim Hook from Walter Baker, executive secretary for the Utah Water Quality Board, officials with the Division of Water Quality and San Juan County “conducted a site inspection of the wastewater treatment and disposal system and abandoned lagoon system” at the lodge on July 30 and found violations.

The notice of violation and compliance order gives Hook 30 days to respond in writing with a plan for resolving the problem, or face penalties.

Five violations of state law were listed: discharge of wastes “where there is probable cause to believe it will cause pollution...”; discharge without a permit; failure to notify the state of a discharge “which may cause the pollution of the waters of the state”; discharge of effluent from an onsite wastewater system onto the ground; and allowing a failing wastewater system to create or contribute to an unsanitary condition “which may involve a public health hazard. . .”

According to the notice of violation, an unauthorized, unlined three-cell municipal wastewater lagoon system has been on the property of Recapture Lodge since at least November 1967. In September 1996, DWQ issued Recapture a construction permit for a “large underground wastewater disposal system consisting of multiple septic tanks and a drainfield” to handle the wastewater from the 54-unit hotel and its laundry facility. One condition of the construction permit was that the old lagoon would be abandoned after the new system was placed in service.

The notice of violation states that Hook notified DWQ in November 1996 that the new underground disposal system was complete and in operation, and that the 4-inch discharge line to the old lagoon had been “permanently cemented shut.”

However, DWQ staff and officials with the county found during their inspection on July 30, 2009, that there were two 4-inch pipes leading to the northwest corner of the first lagoon cell and “a trickle of liquid” that “appeared to be wastewater” was flowing into the lagoon from one pipe.

Officials also found that the secondary clarifier at the wastewater-pretreatment site was “poorly maintained based on accumulations of sludge and the presence of weeds growing in the effluent launder.” The officials saw effluent flowing out of the clarifier into the wet well, the notice states.

“Upon returning to the lagoon, full pipe flow was observed entering the first lagoon from both of the 4-inch discharge pipes,” the notice states. Water was also seen overflowing into a second lagoon through a breach in the dike. After about a minute, the water turned into heavy sludge.

“Sludge discharges of the magnitude observed indicate grossly inadequate sludge wasting and performance monitoring practices by the facility,” the notice states.

“Failure to operate and monitor the pretreatment system at the Recapture Lodge in accordance with the basic principles and minimum industry standards. . . have resulted in the discharge of sludge into the large underground disposal system, which has plugged the drainfield causing a failure of the large underground disposal system.”

The notice says the unlawful discharge is believed to have occurred over an “extensive period of time.”

“Recapture Lodge installed an emergency overflow line to the abandoned lagoon system,” the notice states, and the resulting discharge of wastewater and sludge “is probable cause for degradation of the quality and beneficial uses of ground water.”

How serious?

Just how serious this degradation might be remains a large unknown.

State water engineer John Mackey, the project manager who is assisting the town in developing whatever sewer project may eventually be decided upon, said while he is not directly involved with groundwater issues or in writing such violations, the danger of groundwater contamination is undetermined at this point.

“Frankly, we don't know,” Mackey said. “Nobody's done a detailed study of that release — its impact on the shallow groundwater or its potential to reach the San Juan River.

“If your question is, ‘How bad is it?’, you know, it hasn't been measured,” he said. “We suspect that it's been going on for a long time.” But he said unless someone could supply a specific date when Recapture's underground three-tank system failed and the sewage was diverted to the two abandoned lagoons, the extent of the problem will be difficult to assess.

“That would be important in being able to determine the overall impacts on groundwater,” he added. “That said, that's a slow-moving acquifer — it's very flat in that area and it's a long way to the San Juan — the 6,000 gallons-aday maximum that could have been released from Recapture is infinitesimally small compared to the 700 cfs (cubic feet per second) that flows through the San Juan.”

Mackey said the risk of contamination of the San Juan is minimal also because most of the bacteria in the effluent would already be filtered out between the lagoon and the river.

Regardless of Bluff residents’ diametrically opposed views on the desirability of a public sewer system, Mackey said, no one wants to see Recapture Lodge driven out of business by draconian fines or cost-prohibitive requirements to set the problem right.

“Everybody loves Recapture Lodge — it's famous, it's got character and they have just struggled and struggled at getting a working solution for their wastewater,” he said.

For years the state and the county have pushed Bluff to get a centralized wastewater system, but many locals have resisted, arguing that the cost would be high and that there is little need in a town with a population of less than 400. But proponents say the system is needed because of Bluff’s proximity to the river and its soils, which are not ideal for handling septicsystem effluvia.

An underlying factor in the controversy is disagreement over the desirability of growth in the stunningly scenic, low-key berg. Obviously major commercial development, such as chain restaurants and motels, could be encouraged by the availability of a public sewage system.

“I don't know if I'd call them the progrowth crowd, but there is a group that feels that what you really need to put in is a substantial system that is proven technology and long-lasting,” he said, “and as a state worker, I feel that's our job — to have visions of improving communities and helping them not just survive, but thrive.”

Opposing a sewer system as a means of limiting growth is short-sighted, Mackey said, and there are better ways of controlling how a town develops.

“If the people of Bluff are concerned about how they grow — if they don't want a McDonald's or a chain motel or a chemical factory — then they have the wherewithal to do it,” he said. “If they really care about their town and the future of their town, then they should plan their town.

“Limiting your sanitation options just seems like a real poor mechanism for controlling growth.”

Little progress

But formal planning and growth control is difficult in a town that is not even incorporated.

Meanwhile, little progress toward a permanent solution to the town's sewage concerns has been made since a May 2008 public meeting at which it appeared the Bluff Service Area Board, the local governing authority in the absence of a town government, would proceed with its “preferred option.”

That option was for a hybrid treatment system that involves placing septic tanks in front of users' properties that are hooked up to a central treatment plant where the effluvia is run through a series of filters, leaving the water fit for underground drip irrigation but not for human contact. The system would have cost about $5 miliion, funded mostly by grants along with a $1.4 million loan that would have been repaid through user fees, ranging from $26 a month for a threebedroom house on up, according to usage and the size of the residence or business.

“We had moved forward to pick the preferred option,” said Skip Meier, who has the thankless task of chairing the service-area board and working to find a solution, “but then the state thought maybe we didn't do things according to Hoyle, and they wanted us to certify it to satisfy the (Utah State) attorney general and that took about three or four months. After that passed, we got a petition from some of the residents of Bluff saying we shouldn't do anything, and then the state said, 'Maybe we should start thinking about this again . . .’

“So as a result we're just about the same place where we were two years ago,” Meier said. He said that while he still prefers the hybrid system, the state wants Bluff to also consider the option of a “non-discharging lagoon with a conventional big-pipe sewer system.” Under this system, he explained, the raw sewage “wouldn't be treated, it would just be exposed to the air.

“You just put the water in this basin, maintain levels about four to six feet and let it evaporate away, let the wind stir it up a little bit, let algae grow but not plants because they could pierce the bottom and then the water would drain into the ground.” He said other small southeastern Utah communities such as Mexican Hat and Montezuma Creek have this type of system.

Hook, who declined to be interviewed, is one of a sizable number of residents who have long opposed a centralized sewage-treatment system.

Another outspoken opponent is Eugene Foushee, who long ago owned Recapture. He wrote in an e-mail to service-area board members in March 2009 that he opposes the central system as “an inappropriate system fraught with expense, engineering, disruption and committing the Bluff community to an eternity of debt before Bluff has even become an incorporated town.”

Warring factions

Meier said there are three camps concerning sewage in Bluff, each comprising about a quarter of the population, “and the other 25 percent doesn't care.”

“Bluff is Bluff and the factions [for and against a public sewage system] are very vocal and have sufficient numbers of followers to make it very difficult to get consensus.”

One anti-sewer group “thinks that it is anti-American to not take care of your own. They feel that the Bluff community is more than competent and qualified to maintain their own systems and people should pay their own way — they shouldn't be getting large amounts of state and federal money.”

Another group also believes those residents who can take care of their own waste should be allowed to do so, he explained, but that a public system should be available for those who can't because of their small lot sizes or other impediments. “They would like to see as many people as possible stay on their own systems and those who can't become part of this collective. In other words, create a community-wide wastewater system for those who've got to have it and for all those who don't need it, they can do whatever they want.”

Although this may sound reasonable, the result would be a town-wide public system with sewer pipes running right by properties with septic systems, and all residents would still foot the bill for the public system. “It would be a real nightmare to handle,” Meier said.

One group firmly supports the nondischarging lagoon system. “They say, 'That's what we want, period,” and maintain it is the only practical solution for a a small town.

“Other people say lagoons don't work, they smell two or three times a year and that it's going to be environmentally damaging and degrading to put in a big collection system.”

But the hybrid system also has vociferious opponents. “They say what is being proposed — the pack-bed media for treatment [the filtering technique] - is too complicated, will never work and will always be broken down.”

So at public meetings there's often a majority that opposes whatever is suggested. “Fifty to 60 percent of the community gets together and shoots down whatever is proposed,” Meier said.

“We finally get something that seems like it will work and in the end we get community members writing petitions or demanding it go to a vote — they say, ‘I'm not getting what I want and I'm not going to settle for anything else, so I'm going to vote your choice down.”

Meier said the service-area board has no legislative or enforcement powers to take action concerning any sewage system that is malfunctioning. “And the county isn't going to shut down a business because of a small problem like sewage leaking,” he said, “so then what do you do? You don't do anything.”

Mackey said the state certainly hasn't given up on helping Bluff find a solution. He said DWQ maintains a “project priority list” for all projects that may receive funding through the state revolving fund. Bluff has moved lower on this list because of new funding requests that have come in while Bluff has mulled a sewage system.

However, he wrote in an e-mail to the Free Press, “The change in Bluff's position has nothing to do with changes in their need for a sewer or their need for funding. It has to do with competing needs of other communities that have joined Bluff in the funding queue.”

He added that Bluff has commissioned numerous studies dating back to at least 1977 to assess the need for a sewage-treatment system. “None of these studies have recommended the community take no action.”