The fight over pump house pits needs of Salt Lake City’s thirsty downtown against a quiet neighborhood in Memory Grove

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune "I wanted to have a voice specifically for the trees," said Katie Pugh, who has lived across the street from the 110-year-old sycamores that she and her husband Nathan cherish. Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities has proposed a series of upgrades for its Memory Grove, but neighborhood residents, including Katie and Nathan Pugh say a new pump house the city wants to build is too big, unsightly and threatens to take out several mature trees and ruin the aesthetics of the park.

Neighbors in a verdant residential stretch below Memory Grove remain wary of a proposal to refurbish the most plentiful drinking-water well in Salt Lake City.

In reaction to the concerns, city officials have scaled back plans for a new 2,000-square-foot utility building over the well, located in a park at North Canyon Road and Fourth Avenue. They’ve sought since 2017 to make the 76-year-old water source safer for employees and customers and bring it up to regulation.

The well pumps out a staggering 3 million to 7 million gallons daily in summer months, the equivalent of five to 10 Olympic-size swimming pools. With that volume and its location, the well is considered crucial to keeping the city’s water system resilient and meeting demand in the growing downtown area, around Capitol Hill and even at Salt Lake City International Airport.

“It is one of the more important drinking-water wells in our system,” said Laura Briefer, director of the city’s Department of Public Utilities. “This is a project that has to happen for the good of the public.”

But residents are warning that the proposed Fourth Avenue pump house and its fenced perimeter will forever alter their quiet historic neighborhood just south of the entrance to Memory Grove and City Creek Canyon.

They worry the pump house will be boxy and ugly. Even a structure half the original size or smaller, they say, means chopping down several mature trees, blocking views and blemishing the tiny but high-profile park with what one called “an out-of-proportion, Jiffy Lube-like structure.”

They’re also concerned about plans to chlorinate the well’s water on-site, out of fears about transporting and storing liquid chlorine near their homes and the popular byway for joggers and cyclists. What if it leaks? they ask.

“This park belongs to everyone,” neighbor Lisa Livingston told the Salt Lake City Council last week. “It is wrong to intentionally inflict a wound that will never heal.”

Protest signs in front yards now ring the park, one with a skull and crossbones next to the word “chlorine,” another saying, “Goodbye Trees, Hello Water Treatment.” Katie Pugh, whose cottage is directly across North Canyon Road from the well, recently knitted and draped bright-colored yarn banners around the trunks of 110-year-old sycamores at risk.

"I wanted to have a voice specifically for the trees," she said.

‘Took that to heart’

The Department of Public Utilities plans a May 9 open house at the well site starting at 5:30 p.m. to discuss a new study of its options and to garner public input ahead of construction work that Briefer hopes can start this fall.

Work is feasible only that part of the year, she said, because the well’s bounty is so vital in warmer months.

Several aspects of the well, brought into service in 1943, don’t meet state and federal regulations these days, and officials say the need to upgrade its electrical system is triggering a much wider overhaul, including bringing the well’s casing above ground, requiring a building around it.

Just as pressing, Briefer and other city officials say, is the need to make it more safely accessible by maintenance workers without risk of electrocution.

The city’s favored option — refurbishing the well, putting in new electrical, pumping and chlorine-injection systems and building an 800-square-foot pump house with a driveway and fenced grounds — would cost about $2.7 million.

But Briefer said the project is still only about a third designed partly in light of neighbors’ calls for a smaller impact. “We really took that to heart,” she said.

Residents of the neighborhood — including experts in engineering, geology and architecture — are challenging many of the city’s findings so far, in particular that the project needs to be so big. Alan Walker, a petroleum engineer who lives 200 feet from the well, called the city’s engineering of the facility “outdated, unnecessary and unimaginative.”

Neighbors are preparing to keep up their opposition to the city’s plans at a series of hearings in May, June and beyond. They are urging officials to find a way to fix the well, make it safe for workers and neighbors, and leave the park as untouched as possible.

“I understand there are safety issues with our current well,” said Evan Smith, who lives near the park, “but why do improvements come at the expense of visual serenity?”

Tough balance

Because the well is at a nexus of several of Salt Lake City’s historic districts, the design and wider impacts of the new building will need approval from the city’s powerful Historic Landmark Commission.

The city is asking, among other things, for waivers for the project’s fencing and landscaping and relief on setback rules for putting the building’s walls so close to the park’s edges.

Some residents say the panel could reject the building based on its size alone, or, at the least, set strict conditions on its look. By commission policy, its members do not comment to the news media or accept public input outside of formal hearings or work sessions.

The commission’s staff signaled last fall that signing off on the well house will require a tough balance — one that pits historic preservation and open space against severe site constraints and the need to keep a vital city resource flowing.

City officials then brought in an architect and redesigned or stripped away key features that had broadened the well house’s footprint, such as moving a backup generator off-site and ditching a fluoride injection system. The city, for now, is retaining plans for chlorine treatment at the site, out of health concerns for customers farther down the delivery system as residential population downtown continues to build.

The well’s water is clean, according to Jess Stewart, the city’s water quality and treatment administrator, "but if you're the 12,000th user or a resident in a high-rise, we'd like to have the water chlorination to keep the system as pure as possible.”

The prospect of having stocks of liquid sodium hypochlorite akin to double-strength Clorox Bleach stored nearby has added a nervous edge to the issue for many residents. They want the city to consider off-site storage with a transmission line feeding into the well head or a third spot down the pipeline.

Risks: near or far?

Putting the chlorine elsewhere involved significant risks, according to the latest study of the project, by the South Jordan engineering firm Hansen, Allen & Luce, in addition to the cost of buying new land and constructing a second building and transmission lines.

Briefer said the chemical would be stable and well-contained at the new pump house, whereas there are dangers of leaks along a feeder line.

She also raised a scenario in which a water pump and injection system at different sites could lose contact, with potential to cause an accident akin to the recent fluoride release in Sandy’s water system that sickened hundreds of residents.

Some of those claims recently prompted Councilman Chris Wharton, whose district spans Memory Grove and other areas of the city’s northeast bench, to push back on behalf of residents.

“Why should people not be concerned that the chlorination is happening at the well if chlorinating further down the pipe could present risks?” he asked.

According to the new study, moving the well — an option recommended by many residents as well as Preservation Utah — is likely to involve applying for new water rights, buying residential properties for a drilling site and then plumbing the new well stream into the city’s existing system, the study said.

That would cost at least $5.6 million, the study predicted. And according to Stewart, “there’s no guarantee if we move that well somewhere else, we’ll get that same production.”

This extended debate of the Fourth Avenue pump house and additional work the city has done to accommodate residents led Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, representing south-central parts of the city, to raise the issue of equity.

“When there’s a pump house project in one of our districts,” Mendenhall asked, “are we going to be able to expect that increased cost of a more beautiful building and the architectural investments that Public Utilities has made?”