After years of development and an investment of millions of dollars, the state's first large-scale reverse osmosis water-treatment facility is scheduled to begin delivering municipal water to residents and businesses in the southwest part of the Salt Lake Valley by early May.
State and local water officials on Thursday unveiled the Bingham Canyon Water Treatment Plant, the first phase of a two-part project that will initially deliver 3,500 acre-feet of water yearly to the equivalent of 4,300 homes - water that until now has been rendered undrinkable because of mining pollutants, primarily sulphate.
"After all the dust settles, we've made something good out of a real bad situation," said David Ovard, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District.
Reverse osmosis is a water-purification technique in which pressure is used to push water through a membrane, leaving salts behind. The Bingham Canyon plant, which will be bolstered by a second reverse osmosis plant in 2009 and eventually deliver a combined 8,200 acre-feet of water, will be the largest facility of its kind between the east and west coasts.
The reverse osmosis process was chosen by Kennecott Utah Copper Corp. - which will operate the Bingham Canyon facility - the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District as the best way to convert the water to municipal use.
The target: a pair of large plumes sitting underneath the south Salt Lake Valley cities of West Jordan, South Jordan, Riverton and Herriman.
The plumes, covering about 50 square miles, contain large amounts of sulphate, the result of decades of mining in the Oquirrh Mountains. Without the cleanup, officials say, the plumes will continue to migrate north toward the center of the valley, where they could affect other groundwater areas.
When both are up and running, the two plants will be able to convert 80 percent of the contaminated groundwater for municipal use. The remaining 20 percent will remain by-product.
"We have every confidence the water going into these homes will be safe to drink," said Kennecott representative Kelly Payne.
Kennecott will pay for most of the cleanup costs. The company in 1995 paid $37 million into a natural resources damage trust fund, which has since grown to more than $62 million. The water district will pay for normal water development and treatment costs, according to district officials.
State officials haven't looked beyond the Kennecott/Jordan Valley facility in terms of future reverse osmosis projects, but they expect it to be a piece of the puzzle as Utah goes forward in meeting its water needs.
"This can't compete with Central Utah [Project] water and other sources of clean water in terms of cost-effectiveness," said Dianne Nielson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "But there are a lot of other places where we won't have enough quality water to meet demand. So in the future you're going to see more of this. And this will certainly be an important example of how it will work."