A messy dilemma in the beautiful town of Bluff

One recent bright and balmy day, I was lunching at the Twin Rocks Café in Bluff, relaxing in the desert warmth, when I noticed men assembling in the parking lot below. They were noteworthy because they wore buttoneddown shirts or sleek jackets. Some drove up in white SUVs with official insignia. To my winter-jaded eyes, they appeared startlingly clean.

Eight or nine of them arrived, and they all strolled across the street and milled around under a giant cottonwood. They looked up at the Bluff cliffs and pointed at the intensely green grass of spring.

Curiosity got the better of manners. I asked around, and learned they were there because the town has a major wastewater problem. Or some people think it has; others are content to live alongside a lifetime’s familiar germs. This was my introduction to Bluff’s ongoing controversy concerning too many septic tanks and the potential need for a community sewage system.

“Any place you dig a hole in this town, you smell sewage,” Bill Gaines, a local resident, told me. He’s one of those who favor the building of a sewage system.

“People have been debating about sewage for 30 years,” said Steve Simpson, one of the owners of the Twin Rocks Café and Trading Company. “It has become a log jam for other good community projects.”

Bluff has about 300 people now, and 122 septic systems. Although it is surrounded by federal public lands and the Navajo reservation, still it is growing. The question of installing a sewage system is one that faces many small Western communities, including the town of Rico, northeast of Cortez.

The difference between such a debate in a bigger area and in a small town is that in the small town, all arguments become utterly personal. Everyone knows everyone else’s opinion, but many do not know all the factual information that may provide the basis for a reasonable consensus.

The Twin Rocks Café is at the heart of the argument. The café and trading post are owned by four Simpson siblings: Craig, Steve, Barry, and Susan. They were born and raised in Bluff and Blanding.

Steve left to pursue a law career, but returned home 15 years ago. Craig lives in Blanding now so his children can finish school in a large environment, but he works at Twin Rocks nearly every day, managing the café with Sue.

Twin Rocks catapulted the sewage question to prominence, drawing the officials I had watched out under the cottonwood tree, when according to Steve Simpson, their septic system had leaked for at least the third time, and effluent ran all over a woman’s yard across the street. Understandably upset, she called the EPA, which called the Utah Water Quality Division, which called their branch office in Price, which called San Juan County.

Twin Rocks is one of the largest businesses in Bluff, drawing tourists from far and wide, including people from Cortez who drive over for lunch. The trading post handles high-quality items, beautiful to look at even if you can’t easily afford the price.

But Twin Rocks, according to local geologist Gene Stevenson, was not built on a safe site. It is so close to the northern cliffs, he can envision a great boulder rolling onto it one day. And it is situated on bedrock Entrada siltstone.

Steve Simpson explained that this underlying rock extends out to the edge of their parking lot, so the only place they could put in a septic system was on a narrow strip across the street where they found river gravels. This did not leave enough room for the leach field their business now requires. The state health department could shut down Twin Rocks if the system leaks again.

All the Simpsons hope some general sewage solution for the whole town can be devised before they have to rebuild their system by either building a mound or piping effluent a considerable distance down the curve of the highway toward town.

But not everyone sympathizes with their dilemma. Faye Belle Gaines, also born and raised in Bluff and owner of the Dairy Café, exclaimed, “You want my opinion? Honey, you’ve got it! I can’t afford a sewage plant. I’m against it. I take care of my own sewage. I can’t even feed an old hen and a bunch of chickens!”

Craig Simpson said some people oppose a central sewage system because they fear it will bring rampant growth to the scenic town. Marx Powell, chairman of the Bluff Water Board, which oversees the town’s drinking-water system, believes the problem is widespread and needs a community solution. He said many septic systems leak onto neighboring properties because the systems often don’t meet safety codes and because the town lots are often too small to accommodate leach fields.

In 2001 — for the third time — the public school’s system failed and leaked effluent onto the grounds for three months. Children played in it, according to several sources. Six years ago, the town had arranged government financing, including grants and no-interest loans, to install a sewage system. but the townspeople voted down the proposal because it called for a sewage lagoon, an unsightly mess no one wanted near Bluff. New proposals would not include such a lagoon.

However, according to Dave Cunningham, head of the state health department’s district office in Price, a few years ago he sent two teams who walked every leach field in town looking for violations and found only one. He said he didn’t even know if the town could get funding again for a sewer system, because citizens had voted it down twice and “other towns need funding too.”

“Bluff has caused us more trouble than any other part of my entire district,” he said.

Craig Simpson said that Bluff has a fine drinking- water system. In spite of its location on the San Juan River, the town has always gotten its water from wells. At first they were mostly private, shallow wells. However, the entire region is underlain by the massive Navajo Sandstone, a premier aquifer. At Bluff, if you drill from the surface you will encounter some 50 feet of river gravels, then about 200 feet of red Entrada-Carmel siltstones and mudstones, and then the Navajo.

The town installed a community water system, managed by Jim Harden. There are three major wells east of town and two to the west, drawing water from 600 to 800 feet deep in the Navajo — artesian wells yielding 30 to 35 gallons per minute, according to Harden.

This water is pumped up to two 200,000-gallon tanks on a hill west of Twin Rocks, and from there it gets enough head to flow through pipes to town residents.

Stevenson insists there is no way the upper-level leach fields can ever contaminate the Navajo. This is guaranteed by the 200 feet of Entrada-Carmel, known to water experts as an aquaclude. Even if sewage could get through those thick red rocks, it could not enter the Navajo aquifer because that system is artesian, meaning that it is constantly under pressure from its source areas, which rise to elevations higher than Bluff. Its pressure will always keep surface waters out.

The Navajo at Bluff, said Stevenson, forms a kind of underground bowl since rock strata happen to dip toward Bluff from every direction. True, the town is consuming water faster than the Navajo receives it at distant outcroppings, but that is a situation common to most towns.

What may not be healthy at Bluff is the condition of numerous, congregated leach fields underlying the town. Everyone’s effluent is seeping under everyone else’s property. Some 50 old, shallow wells are now used mostly to water yards because their water would be unsafe, and because nobody needs them for drinking water now.

Although the upper contaminated gravels are indeed separated from the Navajo aquifer, it is still problematic to live on top of so much concentrated effluent. When the drought was at its worst, the water table at Bluff dropped to more than 13 feet below ground level. Right now, however, after a wet winter and spring, the water table is more like 0 to 8 feet below people’s yards. One might expose sewage merely by planting a tree.

Charles DeLorme, co-owner of Wild Rivers Expeditions in Bluff, said he favors a sewage plant because he is concerned about the effluent draining into the San Juan. “I’m concerned about the potential pollution of the river,” he said.

No one knows whether the San Juan River is contaminated. Eventually the effluent from those 122 leach fields must drain through gravels down toward the river. It cannot sink into the earth because of the aquaclude beneath the gravels. Even if some effluent drains under the riverbed, geologists know the San Juan is capable in big floods of churning up boulders and gravel 50 feet below its bed, probably clear to bedrock.

What Bluff residents do agree on is the need for information. Is there proof they actually have a wastewater problem? How polluted are the gravels beneath their town?

Acting under San Juan County’s Bluff Service Area, citizens established a special Wastewater Committee chaired by Teresa Breznan.

She said a survey conducted among property-owners in Bluff under the condition of confidentiality found that there were numerous admitted septic malfunctions or inadequacies.

A grant from the National Environmental Service Center enabled the Wastewater Committee to hire Nolte Engineering to examine the situation and look for solutions.

On May 25, an enthusiastic Rod Mills, managing director of Nolte, reported current findings to a town meeting. He noted two areas of town where property owners cannot physically comply with septic regulations — one neighborhood on the west side that has lots too small to hold leach fields, and a second area that is underlain by too much clay to operate leach fields.

For these he recommended two neighborhood cluster systems to gather septic effluent to places it can be properly treated.

In general, though, Mills outlined a continuum of 11 management categories from merely sending people reminder letters to check their septic systems; all the way to a full-blown central sewage system owned by a town sewage entity. Other options in between included mandatory septic checks and community-wide treatment of septic effluent at a central locations.

The closer the town moves toward a central system, Mills said, the less liability could fall on individual property owners for any sewage leaks or problems.

To guide the Wastewater Committee, Mills asked the 15 or so attendees to mark their preferences on his continuum poster. It appeared people were about evenly divided at opposite ends of the continuum, but almost all wanted something done beyond just the status quo. All expressed a need for hard information.

Help will come from Utah’s Divison of Water Quality. It has schedulled a testing survey throughout Bluff to fully characterize the shallow gravel aquifer — assessing nitrate levels, coliform bacteria, and heavy metals.

Edward Hickey of the division office in Salt Lake City will direct the work in Bluff, where he will test many private shallow wells and will oversee drilling of five permanent state monitoring wells.

Part of Nolte’s current recommendations are to get another NESC grant to hire a special lawyer for the Bluff Service Area, to guide the town through future wastewater development and keep local control. He emphasized that the farther along Nolte’s projected continuum people choose to progress, the more clout Bluff will have in determining its own future.

He said state agencies could end up paying 90 percent of wastewater costs for putting in a full-blown sewage plant, with residents perhaps receiving bills of only $25 a month.

While looking over the continuum chart, Mills noted that many people wanted the liability to fall on the town through some form of centralized treatment. One local woman pointed to the final slot on the poster, which represented a central sewage plant, and said, “Some people say, ‘Just get it clear out of my yard!’”

From June 2005.